Tess James-Mackey spent years mucking out horses, getting trampled on by horses, and finally realising she might prefer a less precarious office job. Between analysing insurance risk, she writes teens into terrifying situations inspired by her lived experiences, from softplay in an abandoned prison, camping in the wilds of the Black Mountains, and living with fifteen other girls in a dilapidated farmhouse.
When she’s not allowing her mind to wander to dark and twisty places, she pursues more wholesome activities like obsessively growing mediocre vegetables in her garden, camping, and even riding the odd horse.
A 2020 WriteMentor mentee, Tess worked on her Young Adult manuscript ‘Lost Inside‘ with author and mentor Cynthia Murphy. Since then, she has signed with Stephanie Thwaites, literary agent at Curtis Brown.
Read about Tess’s experience with WriteMentor, her own writing journey, and why she believes mentoring is so important for writers.
What made you apply for the WriteMentor programme?
In 2018, I was having no success querying my first book and ventured into the world of Twitter after a friend suggested it was good for budding authors. WriteMentor popped up, a brand new programme. It felt a bit like fate…
What was your experience like?
I spent the first few weeks trying to figure out what the catch was – I just couldn’t believe these wonderful writers were giving their time and expertise up for free. Once I’d accepted my mentor wasn’t going to turn up and my house demanding cash, I allowed myself to absorb her wisdom. I’ve been a mentee every year WriteMentor has been running, with three different books in three different genres, with three very different mentors. Each one has built my shaky confidence up piece by piece, welcoming me with open arms and banishing my impostor syndrome. They all had completely different styles of mentoring, which made each year a new and hugely beneficial experience.
Tell us about your writing journey from start until now.
I’ve always loved creative writing, but was told “author” wasn’t a real job, so decided to focus on the other thing I enjoyed – horses. After five years of equine-based education, i I realised I didn’t quite love horses enough to make the working conditions worth it, so found a 9-5 in insurance. I’ve been there ever since. On maternity leave in 2016, I realised I was horribly bored, and thought I’d sit down and have a go at writing a book. I did zero plotting, had no clue what I was doing and hadn’t had any writing education since I was 16, but I did it! Querying that one was a bit of a shock – I hadn’t realised there were rules and a way to do things. And that’s when I discovered WriteMentor, who gave me my writing education.
Can you tell us a little more about the book you worked on and signed with?
Lost Inside started as a Middle Grade ghost story set inside the abandoned prison in my home town, until I realised I was going to scar young children for life if I kept going in that age category. It then became a Young Adult psychological thriller, before my 2020 mentor read it and said, “Could you just…put a killer in there and see what happens?” So I did…and now I feel like I’ve finally found my genre, and my wonderful Point-Horror-obsessed agent!
What is your best piece of writing advice that you learned on the programme?
I’m going to be boring, and echo what so many others have said before me…keep writing. I was crushed when my first book didn’t go anywhere, and the stories of authors getting published on their 6th book were not inspiring – I couldn’t imagine going through all the anguish that many times! But honestly, the more I write, the more natural it feels. I’ve just drafted another Young Adult horror during my latest querying process, and becoming fully absorbed in a new idea protected my mental health so much and reminded me that the passion for writing makes the pain of disappointments and rejection worth it…most of the time!
Why do you think mentoring is important for writers?
Understanding the industry is a bit of a minefield when you’re on your own, so having that connection with other writers is invaluable. I see my three mentors as good friends now, who have taught me so much – I would have given up long ago if it wasn’t for their support and belief in my writing. It’s difficult not to let the inevitable rejections convince you that you’re a terrible writer, so having mentors (and the critique partners you make along the way) to boost you up makes all the difference.