Interview by K.C. Karr
The best part of being a #WriteMentor is seeing authors make their dreams come true. We’re thrilled to share the success story of author Lydia Massiah and her mentor Kathryn Clark.
Lydia, what about Kathryn’s bio convinced you to sub to her?
A combination of factors suggested we inhabited the same world of cultural references. Kathryn’s list of favourite novels overlapped with many of mine (The Lie Tree, The Hate U Give, The Knife of Never Letting Go), while on her wish-list were historical stories and multiple voice narratives, both key aspects of my novel. I liked that Kathryn had lots of experience editing and critiquing as part of her MA in Writing for Children. Particularly though, I was drawn to her because she came across as empathetic and supportive, when she emphasized the need to be kind to potentially nervous writers. The liking for Earl Grey Tea was the clincher…
Kathryn, what made you fall in love with Troglodyte?
I was immediately hooked by the eerie stalactite girl in Lydia’s pitch, and as I read through Lydia’s application, synopsis and MS I knew this was the one I had to mentor. Lydia’s passion for the natural world and love of myth give the story such a richness. I love books where the setting is important and in Troglodyte the cave is really a character in its own right. Lydia’s writing is lyrical and beautiful, particularly the historical narrative, and the ending is very strong and unexpected. Also, the story touches on mental health issues in young people, which is something that Lydia and I share an interest in.
Lydia, looking back, what was your favorite part of the #WriteMentor experience?
Being selected in the first place was pretty fabulous – to know my writing was at least good enough for someone to choose me!
Getting Kathryn’s edit letter, or any edit letter is always a bit tough. I let it sink in, then started going through her comments in detail, and began to apply them to my work. It was then that I saw how well her ideas were working. That moment made me so excited about ‘Troglodyte’ again, about how much better it could be, and the new level I could take it to.
After that, I completely trusted Kathryn’s opinion, because the changes felt right.
Kathryn, tell us what it was like working with Lydia.
It has been wonderful working with Lydia. In her #WriteMentor application, Lydia was very open about what she felt needed addressing in Troglodyte. She had been on writing courses and set up critique groups, so was used to working with other writers. However, it is quite a different thing to have fresh eyes on your entire manuscript, and I was worried initially about sending her my editorial report – it came in at around 6,500 words! I know how hard it can be when someone critiques your work, and this was a big chunk of feedback.
Lydia very sensibly took her time after reading my report, and then we discussed various aspects of it via email. Lydia and I also managed to meet up in person, which was so helpful to the process and made ongoing communication even easier.
I really believe that the mentoring process is not about one writer telling another what they should do. It’s a dialogue between the two of you, and you’re both on the same side, trying to make the story the best it can be. It’s important to be honest with each other, and the final decision is, of course, with the mentee, as it’s her manuscript.
When I read Lydia’s new first page, I had goosebumps. It was amazing. She had completely changed the style, and massively increased the tension right from the first line. She has done a wonderful job keeping the new style and voice throughout, and I’m excited to see what will happen next.
Lydia recently gave me feedback on my own WIP which was very helpful, and I hope we’ll continue to work together.
Lydia, what was the most surprising part of the #WriteMentor experience?
How quickly it made a huge difference! Just changing my opening to improve pacing and heighten the tension, being more explicit about certain issues – all that gave my start so much more impact and focus. Which meant that when I went to a literary festival with my newly written chapters, and when I entered a competition, my work immediately attracted interest.
Lydia, the revision process is only three months and can be intense. Tell us about your revisions and how you dealt with constructive criticism from Kathryn. What advice do you have for future mentees?
Constructive criticism can be hard to take, but writers need to get used to it if they ever want a book published. No book is taken on by an editor in a publishing house who goes, “Well that’s all perfectly fine then…”
It’s best to read through an edit letter quickly, and then leave it to settle in. Give yourself a few days if necessary. A good editor will temper the changes with praise, and Kathryn did all that, but making changes is hard at first. The other thing to remember though is that changing something doesn’t make that new version irrevocable. It doesn’t mean that your earlier manuscript is lost. You’re just trying out a new way, so if it doesn’t work out, you can scrap it. Going into edits thinking: “This is no big deal. I’m just playing around here, and if I don’t like it, then I can go back,” is very liberating!
Lydia, after #WriteMentor, you signed with Jo Williamson of Antony Harwood Ltd. Give us all the details of “The Call.”
What happened to me is rather unusual. I went to a literary festival first, where some editors from a publishing house were giving feedback on opening chapters. I’d booked my slot months ahead and hadn’t fully registered what I was booking. Another writer had told me it was A GOOD THING. I sent off my first three chapters a couple of weeks earlier, then on the day, took my dog along, as after my half hour of feedback, I thought it would be fun to go for a walk, and explore the town. At the door I checked in with the person running the event, to find out exactly who I was seeing. I thought I’d get a mixture of good and bad comments and was expecting NOTHING.
But the editor really loved my opening chapters and asked to read the whole novel. I knew the manuscript was uneven as I was part way through my WriteMentor edits, so was reluctant to hand it over. The editor attempted to coax me into parting with it!
Afterwards, I was completely stunned.
Only later did it strike me that maybe I should send my novel off.
My covering email detailed what I was working on with my mentor. (In other words: I know X and Y and Z are rubbish!!) About ten days went past, and all was quiet. I thought the editor had gone off on holiday…
But then I received THE EMAIL. I was out on a walk with two of my sons when it arrived. The editor had just finished reading my book and they’d loved it. The whole concept. The writing. The ending that had wrung them out. And would I come to their offices to talk about it?
The long and the short of it was that I had publisher interest, but no agent.
Luckily a handful of agents had caught my eye, and one in particular, whom I’d met at the Winchester Writers’ Festival a month earlier. At that stage, I’d just got onto the WriteMentor Programme. Jo Williamson read my old opening, and I told her what I was aiming to do with the novel. She seemed to understand the concept, and how my story fitted into classic children’s literature adventures and expressed an interest to see more when I was ready. Of the four agents I saw, Jo stood out as being most sympathetic to me and my writing. I was so pleased she responded to my news – because amazingly most of the other agents I contacted didn’t even reply. (A query with news of publisher interest gets buried as deep in the slush piles as any other submission apparently.)
Jo was on holiday when I contacted her but started reading my story when she got back. Her email when she finished was very exciting. She was bowled over by how it ended, as she totally hadn’t seen it coming. She thought the story was unique, it ‘got under her skin’, and could totally see why it had attracted interest. And she booked in a time to make a phone call. We’d talked on the phone before, and Jo has a really engaging manner, so it’s easy to chat. I didn’t hesitate when she offered to represent me! There was plenty of excitement from both of us about the project, but also awareness that there’s lots of work ahead. My manuscript is going to change, but I’m ready for that.
The moment I knew I had Jo backing me, I relaxed. She could begin serious negotiations as she knew about how everything worked, about the market, and about the track record of this publisher. Now all the difficult bits are ahead, like contracts and rights – and I’m very glad to have her there to step in.
What does your writing process look like?
Lydia: Chaotic. Ideas fill notebooks, and I pick up interesting historical facts from research, or museums, or talking to people, or snipping out local news stories … My story happens in a very rough form longhand first, not much more than ‘and then he does this, and then that happens, but this stands in his way,’ with more detail if I’ve a clear idea for a scene. Then I start to use a laptop to write the story properly. I tend to think in scene units. If I’m finding it tough to write, I may skip ahead to a scene I’m more excited about. Because I have a clear idea of the whole story shape, I don’t have to write chronologically, but because the outline is very basic, there’s plenty of room for freedom and inspiration. I love dual narratives, so I choose whose voice I want to write in. At the end, I divide up all the scenes from each POV onto Post-its, and then put them into the order I think works best.
Kathryn: Like Lydia, I work in notebooks before going onto the laptop. Some days I write pages and pages, and sometimes it will just be a sentence. My stories usually start with character. I write masses of backstory (sometimes as far back as great grandparents) to get to know my characters. I used to worry about writing all those words that never actually appear in a manuscript, but now I accept it’s part of the process. I write scenes rather than chapters, often different versions of the same one from various points of view until it feels right. I think I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I don’t tend to have a full plot worked out, but I do usually know how my main character is going to change, and I have an inkling about the ending. I make a playlist for each MS and I listen to it while I write.
What author has most inspired you, and why? What is your favorite book (or series)? Why?
Lydia: Alan Garner. His classic story ‘The Owl Service’ is a huge inspiration for ‘Troglodyte’, with its idea of something momentous happening, and echoing down through history. I love how his characters release the magic, and then take on roles of people from the past, in a haunting narrative. Garner uses a real legend, and imagines a history repeating itself, trapped in one valley. Setting and history are central to Garner’s writing, and places and their pasts inspire me too. Garner’s style is particularly spare however – nothing like mine! He writes dialogue like play script, but it’s wonderfully done. I’m not sure modern writers would be allowed to get away with leaving out as much as he does, particularly the way he implies but very rarely describes the feelings of his characters.
Kathryn: One of the authors who has inspired me is C J Skuse. She was my tutor and manuscript supervisor on my MA. She taught me to be bold and brave in my writing, and I will always be grateful to her. I love all her books – but for me the best one is ‘The Deviants’.
I completely panic if I’m asked what my favourite anything is, I’m afraid – so be prepared for a long list here!
I like books with a strong narrative voice – The Color Purple, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Crongton Knights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hate U Give and Wonder. I also like books where the setting plays an important part in the story, particularly natural settings – like The Killing Woods, by Lucy Christopher, Kook by Chis Vick, and Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean.
At the moment, I’m really into verse novels. One by Sarah Crossan is astounding, and I love The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.
Tell us about your favorite writing spot.
Lydia: Having a spot would have been a luxury when I wrote ‘Troglodyte’, and I don’t think you need one. I wrote it at the kitchen table, sharing the space with my boys doing homework. Or I sat on the sofa and wrote, or tapped away in the car waiting in a car park, while one child or another did sport or drama – basically anywhere. I only need a notebook, or a couple of pages of A4. The back of a letter will do. If I find I have to hang around somewhere, I often write a scene that lies ahead. Lunchbreaks at work I’d write. When I set kids at school writing tasks, I’d often write too, as a good example. Typing up properly could happen while the family were watching TV in the evenings, when there was more noise about, and I had less energy to be inventive.
Kathryn: Likewise. A favourite writing spot will have to wait till real life is less hectic, I think! I write all over the place: kitchen table, desk in the bedroom, sofa, in the car, waiting rooms at doctors and hospitals, cafes, libraries, trains, coaches, and even a muddy field on occasion.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Lydia: I love to explore and seek out new places, when I take my collie dog for a walk. I get easily bored by doing the same routes. Landscapes and their atmospheres inspire me, particularly if they have a strong sense of the past. I like that juxtaposition of something ancient, or timeless, with the modern, the way we can reach back through history. But ideas come from everywhere, from my children’s experiences and kids I’ve taught, from stories in local newspapers, from trying out sports like caving, kayaking or bouldering, from objects in local museums, or from just talking to people. A man working in a garden centre once told me about cutting peat on the Somerset Levels and discovering ancient trackways and dug-out canoes, while a caver described how he found an Iron Age brooch deep inside a Mendip cavern. Little museums often have unusual exhibits, and objects can inspire, as well as the stories you uncover there. Unfamiliar myths and legends are fun to collect, especially tales associated with particular places. A writer has to be endlessly curious about everything, ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’, and open to new experiences. Inspiration is everywhere!
Kathryn: I tend to write about the things that anger or scare me, and there’s plenty of those about at the moment. My inspiration often comes from snippets of things that people tell me or that I overhear. Those little details can be the start of a story. Those odd random news stories that fill a few lines at the bottom of a newspaper page are also something that I squirrel away for future use. Music inspires me, too – either the lyrics of a song or the emotion that a piece of music invokes.
For a long time, Lydia Massiah dreamed of being a writer, but it took a while for her to have the confidence to write a novel. When she began, she wrote about everything she loves: adventure, mystery and wonder, with threads of ancient history and folklore thrown in. A Curtis Brown online Writing for Children course helped her improve but being selected for #WriteMentor completely changed her luck.
Lydia studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, the inspiration for Jordan College in ‘His Dark Materials’. Amazingly, Philip Pullman was one of her tutors when she trained to be a teacher. Lydia has taught at secondary level for many years, and more recently worked in a middle school.
In 2016 she moved to Bristol, with her husband, three sons, and a few geriatric chickens. Shortly afterwards she acquired a gorgeous little red collie, who provides an excellent excuse for long walks. Although Lydia misses living in Somerset, with its caves, gorges, peat moors and history, luckily it’s within reach. Lydia is passionate about all the natural world but finds wildflowers easiest to photograph as they stay still.
Kathryn Clark has worked in a wallpaper shop and a call-centre; as an aromatherapist and a researcher. All that time she made up stories in her head, and one day she began to write them down. Kathryn has a degree in English Studies, and an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. After success in various writing competitions, several of her stories have been published. She writes for all ages and mentors other writers at #WriteMentor and Manuscription Magazine. Kathryn lives in Gloucestershire with her husband, two teenagers, two cats, and a border terrier. She loves reading, running, the sea, and earl grey tea.