Denise Barnes, previous creative writing student with the OCA, has just had the first in a trilogy of novels published with HarperCollins. Like most writers, her journey to published author was full of ups and downs. I asked her about that journey:
I’m really enjoying your heartwarming novel, An Orphan in the Snow. Explain where it’s set, what its themes are, and how it’s doing.
It’s the first of a series featuring a Dr Barnardo’s orphanage during the Second World War. There is a romance at the heart of it, and a full cast of characters – not just the children but the staff, including a ghastly matron! HarperCollins published it in December – it sold 25,000 copies in 8 weeks and was number 20 on the best-seller list for ebooks, and 8 out of 10 on the best-seller list for the paperback. So exciting, it made my head spin!
When and how did you start writing?
That would be going back to childhood. But when I worked in a sanatorium in Bavaria as a veggie cook in the 70s I kept a diary as I was sure I would one day turn it into a book. I self-published From Bad to Wurst through a professional company, and when I held the book in my arms (not dissimilar to a baby!) I was really excited. I then wrote a second memoir after I sold my large chain of estate agents (unwittingly) to a pair of con-men. I called it Seller Beware: How Not to Sell your Business. This was immediately picked up by Biteback Publishing Ltd and came out in 2013. This was a huge thrill because it was traditionally published.The publisher said it read like a gothic horror story – I wrote it like a novel rather than a dry business book, although every word was true.
Please talk about your student experience with OCA
I knew I needed to have some proper tuition as well as reading dozens of how-to books. I was delighted that I could be a part-time student at home which would fit in with running the estate agency business. I loved the content of the course, and even though I always baulk at writing exercises, the OCA ones were so interesting, I really enjoyed doing them, almost treating them like short stories in themselves, or extracts from novels.
In what ways did this help you shape your work?
I began my very first novel with OCA, full of trepidation that I wasn’t clever enough to actually produce a full-length work, but the tutors were great. I liked each one very much and was disappointed when given another one, but it all worked out well, giving me different slants on my work. It set me up for a writing discipline that I can’t always keep to 100%, but I know it’s the right method if one is really serious about being a writer. One tutor, Nina Milton, has always kept in touch with me.
What happened once you’d finish your OCA student experience?
I did a 6-month advanced course with Faber and Faber in London. We were about 14 in a class with a great tutor, and every couple of weeks we’d have a guest speaker – agent, publisher, successful author, who would inspire and encourage us. Over the next three years, I wrote the historical trilogy I’d started with the OCA, and self-published two of the novels, again with an excellent company who produced amazing covers. I hadn’t yet self-published Book 3 of the trilogy: Kitty’s Story. I decided to pitch Kitty to a publisher, and was introduced to the senior commissioning editor of HarperCollins at the Romantic Novelists’ Association summer conference. She liked the sound of it and asked me to send her the whole ms. She loved the story, the characters, the dialogue of the 2nd WW etc and my writing style, but (there’s always a ‘but’) as I’d self-published the other two, and this was the third of my trilogy, HC wouldn’t be able to take it on. Deep disappointment on my side. And then I read another ‘but’. But would you like to write a series for us set in the 2nd WW in a Dr Barnardo’s orphanage in Liverpool? My heart dropped. I don’t have children and I’d never been to Liverpool. I couldn’t do it. My writing group said ‘Yes, you can.’ And that’s how the first book: An Orphan in the Snow (I’d called it Flight to Happiness!) was created and accepted with huge enthusiasm from the HC team.
Well done, writing group for their belief in you! I was wondering what attracted you to writing about the past?
The second of my self-published novels was contemporary and I’ve also written a rom-com set in the 70’s. I thoroughly enjoyed writing them, but I love reading historical novels, and hope I have a real feeling for the period and an empathy for the characters when I write them.
Could you explain your writing process to readers of WeAreOCA?
A little haphazard. I always think I’ll polish off 1500 words first thing in the morning, but it’s usually about 1000, and can drift into the afternoon. I like to think I write every day, and mostly I do, but I don’t beat myself up if I miss a day or so. I never used to write an outline, but when you have a contract and a short deadline I think it’s safer to plan your story. I do still like to surprise myself, though, and also change things as I go along if the character sees fit for me to do so.
Yes, writing regularly is so important. But, as you know, OCA students are also encouraged to read alongside their writing. What are you are reading right now?
I read a lot of research books and always have about 4 or 5 on the go. The novel I’m reading at the moment is by Sally Beauman called Rebecca’s Tale, flagged as a sequel to Rebecca. Usually I avoid sequels as they don’t seem to come anywhere near the original, but this one is terrific. It feels just like a Daphne du Maurier. And, she doesn’t create a name for Mrs de Winter as I know some authors have. The structure is very interesting to a writer. It’s in 4 parts, and each part is from the POV of a different character, one of them being Rebecca herself, not from the grave but when she was alive. The four voices, two males and two females, are all in the first person and are so convincing. I am completely in awe of how she does it.
Do you have any advice for OCA creative writing students hoping to complete a novel?
Take your writing seriously. If you don’t, no one else will. Don’t try to do a perfect first draft. You should see mine – they’re pathetic. Writing is re-writing. Join a small writers’ group for support, and read how-to-write books. I have a bookcase full of them! An excellent one is by Stephen King called On Writing. Be disciplined and try to write something every day to keep the writing muscle working. Don’t forget to simply read. If you’re writing in a particular genre read those and see how they do it. Pull them apart. Make notes on openings and endings. What works? What doesn’t? And the three most important words: NEVER GIVE UP!
Thanks Denise, excellent advice, which you obviously take yourself, as you are still writing. What is next for you?
The second novel in the Barnardo’s series: An Orphan’s War, will be published on 3 May. I’ve just sent back the copy edits, and am half-way through a dreadful first draft of the third one: An Orphan’s Wish. It is so raw at the moment and the characters only half formed, but I tell myself it’s normal at this stage. This book is due to be published early next year. Then I’m not sure what will happen, but I hope HarperCollins have something in store for me. If not, I’ll simply write a story which has been churning in my mind for years. A close relative no one spoke about … I’d have to fictionalise it as I know so very little about him but it would make a brilliant story.
Denise Barnes now writes under the name Molly Green. An Orphan in the Snow is available as a paperback, audiobook or Kindle from Amazon. (And Denise adds that if anyone would like a copy of Seller Beware she’d be pleased to send them one free, if they paid the postage – just contact firstname.lastname@example.org)