Katie Baldock spoke to Rebecca Rouillard about writing after winning Mslexia’s 2017 Novel Competition.
Congratulations on winning the 2017 Mslexia Novel Competition! How has having your work acknowledged in this way encouraged you as a writer?
It was hugely encouraging. When I send out a submission I’m always hoping for the best but expecting the worse, and I never imagined that I would actually win. When Debbie Taylor, the editor of Mslexia, phoned me to tell me it was such an immense, overwhelming affirmation that I burst into tears. It was very embarrassing. And of course, ‘Winner of the Mslexia Novel Competition’ was an eye-catching subject line to use when I started submitting to agents and ensured I got a much quicker response than I received previously. I now have a literary agent but I’m not there yet—publication is a VERY long road, but this has inspired me to persevere.
What inspired the story for your novel, The Song of Safe Harbour?
On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal: Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone. And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my previous novel. I decided that, instead of trying to write a literary novel, I wanted to have fun and write about things that I thought were interesting: lighthouses, secret passageways, sentient robots, Fibonacci spirals and coded messages. The inaccessible lighthouse and its undersea tunnel are straight out of Enid Blyton—who started my childhood obsession with secret passageways. The sentient robots were inspired by my favourite sci-fi author, Becky Chambers, who wrote about a spaceship with an onboard AI whose personality developed through her interactions with the crew.
How did studying for your Creative Writing degree at Birkbeck contribute towards developing your novel?
I’d never written fiction before I started at Birkbeck, so it made all the difference—I learned to write over the four years of my course. I wrote two other novels during my degree. The first one I abandoned halfway through, the second one I started for my 4th year dissertation and then finished it later. I submitted that novel to thirty agents without success, but I’m still proud of the achievement of finishing it, if nothing else. And more importantly, it taught me what is involved in finishing a novel and that I could actually do it. Needless to say, it’s a lot more difficult to finish a novel than start one.
You’ve previously written several short stories. How different is the process in writing a short story to a novel?
Short stories are brilliant writing practice. Since they’re relatively quick to finish, you can experiment with form, you can write horribly unlikable characters, you can focus one on particular element to the exclusion of all else, and you can be pedantic about every word and sentence. Of course, you can do all these things for a novel too, but it’s going to be a lot harder to get it published, whereas there are a multitude of submission opportunities for short stories and many more editors willing to take a risk on something different. Personally, I love epic stories—preferably an unending series of books of 1000 pages or more each—the longer the better. So, my heart is in the novel. But I will always appreciate a good short story and continue to attempt to write one.
With your recent success as a novelist, will you continue to write short stories or do you plan to focus on novel writing?
I have got a short story out on submission at the moment, fingers crossed. I think it’s a good discipline to write in different forms—I’d like to continue writing novels, short stories, poetry, and, since I started out as a graphic designer, I’d love to write and illustrate a graphic novel one day.
How do you generate ideas for stories? Have you ever had a period where you struggled with the creative process?
I’ve never had much problem coming up with ideas, it’s the actual writing that I struggle with. A writer’s journal is invaluable—to get all those ideas down and then to wait and see which ones stick in your head and refuse to go away. I’m a major procrastinator, I usually need a deadline to finish something, so I find competitions helpful because they create deadlines to aim for. I’m also a planner—I like to have a clear outline before I start to write, but if I do get stuck then I find going for a walk helps to untangle plot problems. Or I pick a conversation between two of my characters and start writing dialogue, without any punctuation, and this somehow helps me to get to the heart of a scene, then I can add everything else in afterwards.
You were Managing Editor of the Birkbeck Writers’ Hub for four years. Do you think that regularly reading and reviewing others’ work is helpful in developing your own writing skills?
Absolutely! I spent a lot of time reading submissions and this allowed me to identify and articulate what worked and what didn’t work in a story, which of course helped hugely with my own writing. But it also taught me that reading submissions is a subjective process, and just because one person doesn’t like your work, doesn’t mean that another person won’t. Don’t give up after one rejection, keep submitting—the most helpful advice I’ve read is that you should aim for 100 rejections a year.
Have you read anything recently that you would recommend to us?
Madeline Miller’s Circe is a wonderfully engrossing retelling of an epic tale that has many familiar elements but is also strikingly new—the story of a goddess finding her voice. I’m currently reading Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, a series of interlinked short stories, set on the fictional island of Neverness, and it’s amazing. I’m in awe of her way with words—a book to be savoured. And I also loved I Still Dream by James Smyth. In 1997 17-year-old Laura Bow develops a basic artificial intelligence, called Organon, that she uses to talk to about her life. From then the story checks in with Laura every decade as the world changes and Organon develops. A brilliant and thought-provoking book.
Do you have any tips or advice for other writers, particularly those who are feeling discouraged?
Have a look at the #shareyourrejection hashtag on Twitter. We see the success stories, but we don’t often see the incredibly long, torturous process it takes to get to each success. The writers who succeed are the ones who persevere—the ones who keep writing, keep learning, keep submitting. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway, while checking my inbox once again.
Rebecca Rouillard has a Creative Writing degree from Birkbeck and was the Managing Editor of the Birkbeck Writers’ Hub for four years. Her writing has appeared in various publications including The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issues 11 & 12, Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers and Wild Swimmers (The Frogmore Press, 2017), and is forthcoming in Dragons of the Prime: An Anthology of Poems about Dinosaurs (The Emma Press, 2019). She currently works as a children’s librarian in South-West London.