Jess Birch was a 2020 WriteMentor mentee, who worked with author Louisa Reid on her Young Adult retelling of Macbeth, Lady Em. Originally written in 154 sonnets, Louisa helped Jess rewrite her novel in free verse.
She shares the catalysts that led her to writing Lady Em, her experience developing the novel with her mentor, and advice that she learned from the programme.
Tell us about your writing journey from start until now.
Like lots of us, I wrote from an early age. During secondary school and my degree, I focussed on plays, writing and directing my own play whilst I was at Newcastle University. After leaving university, I moved into writing for children (although I’ve no idea why).
I ended up back in Lincolnshire during a recession and had to find something to do with my English degree…and so I became a teacher. My writing stopped pretty much overnight. I found that teaching took up all my creative and emotional energy. My PGCE, NQT year, RQT year, an engagement, a house move, a wedding and a baby meant the years slipped by.
Then, in Autumn 2018, several catalysts woke me back up.
Catalyst 1: Val McDermid
I went with my mum to see Val McDermid give a talk at The Collection organised by my local independent bookshop Lindum Books. Val spoke passionately about her life as a writer and I knew that I had to get writing again.
Catalyst 2: Year 9 Macbeth
I was teaching “Macbeth” to both the top and bottom sets in Year 9 when one of my students said “why do we have to study this?” and I (blasphemously) said “trust me, the story’s great if you can look past the language”.
Catalyst 3: Planet Child
This ITV documentary said that girls begin to doubt their own intelligence at the age of 6. I grew up in a grammar school town and those of us from my primary school who passed the 11+ were all girls. I then went to this all girls’ grammar school and left, at 18, as head girl – I had never had cause to doubt my own intelligence.
In Autumn 2018, my daughter was approaching 2 years old. I couldn’t allow myself to be one of the reasons that she doubted her own intelligence. I knew I therefore had 4 years to prove to her that I was doing something that I aspired to.
Catalyst 4: UKLA
That academic year, I was a teacher judge for the UKLA book award. On the longlist were “Moonrise” by Sarah Crossan; “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds and “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo. Not only did I discover verse novels for the first time, I also (arrogantly) thought “I can do this”.
Catalyst 5: 2nd Pregnancy
Around Halloween, I fell pregnant again. I saw this as an opportunity: in 9 months’ time, I would get a break from teaching.
I spent my pregnancy planning “Lady Em”. Knowing I’d have to write it longhand whilst balancing a new-born, I found the perfect red leather notebook. I finished preparing it at 10.30pm one night in July 2018.
48 hours later I was in labour.
I gave myself 6 weeks to recover. My husband and daughter returned to school and nursery in September 2019. I allowed myself one day to cry and eat cake. The next day, I began.
Lots of people say to me “I don’t know how you’ve written a book on maternity leave” but I particularly want to highlight that for me, it wasn’t about showing off – it was about survival.
With my first child, I had an emergency C-section. I found it a shock going from teaching 150 students a day to just being in charge of one small human. However, I recovered quickly and lived the yummy mummy existence of coffee dates, baby yoga and a cosy NCT bubble. I also did lots of baking. I felt like I needed something to show for my days rather than just keeping the baby clean.
With my second child, I had an emergency C-section again. This time, the recovery wasn’t straight forward, I didn’t have my own car, my NCT friends were not around and I had an angry toddler. I knew that I could very easily feel isolated but instead, I saw this quiet time as a precious opportunity.
Winter 2019-20 was pretty damp and gloomy, but I spent my days feeding my son on the left side (so my writing hand was free) and re-watching every-single-episode of “Escape to the Chateau” in my breaks. “Lady Em” might have kept me company but Dick and Angel kept me sane.
My parents took the toddler away for two days. “Lady Em” was “finished”.
As the country went into lockdown, I sent “Lady Em” to one agent. I knew that it wasn’t ready but had to do something positive at such a tumultuous time. It was politely rejected a week later.
Two of my ex-colleagues (also UKLA judges) read the draft and Emilia and Duncan became twins.
What made you apply for the WriteMentor programme?
I bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2020 and saw that I was going to need an “online presence”. In March, I joined Twitter and followed the contributors who lead me straight to #WriteMentor. The deadline for the summer mentoring programme was a week away.
I studied the list of mentors but when I saw Louisa Reid’s wish list, I knew that if she didn’t want “Lady Em”, then nobody would.
After the deadline on the Friday, I avidly watched her Twitter but she gave nothing away. Then, on the Wednesday, she requested the whole book and asked if I would be willing to move into free verse. I suspected that she might be my “lobster”.
What is your best piece of writing advice that you learned on the programme?
The early drafts were written in Shakespearean sonnets and each one had a key word from the original play plus questions to help students revise for their exams.
Louisa encouraged me to drop all the gimmicks and trust that my voice was enough to sell this book.
What was your experience like?
Better than anything I can have imagined. Louisa really has gone above and beyond for me. We put the manuscript through 5 drafts this summer.
Louisa was also my sounding board throughout the submissions process.
I would also like to give a big shout out to Shirley Hughes. When you’re writing a verse novel, it’s very handy to have a toddler to read aloud to. Yes, I make sure my daughter has “current” picture books (“I Am Bat” is a particular favourite) but I also revert back to the books from my childhood. In my opinion, there is no better wordsmith than Hughes: “New shoes, two shoes, bright shiny blue shoes”.
Why do you think mentoring is important for writers?
You will be told some things that you know but are afraid to admit and some things that you won’t even have thought of!
I’m also very grateful to have met the other #WriteMentor Young Adult writers. They are an amazing support network and helped me write the pitch that my agent saw.
2nd September – I returned to “proper” school for the first time since June 2019.
3rd September – I took part in #PitMad. I got one agent request, which was from Lauren Gardner (who I’m now represented by).
4th September – The #WriteMentor Agent Showcase began.
11th September – I received two agent requests from the showcase.
5th and 9th October – I had “The Calls”.
12th October – I signed with Lauren.
I know they say that it takes a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a village to write a book whilst raising two. My husband is very supportive and accepts that he’s much more likely to find me writing Shakespearean sonnets than cleaning the bath. My children’s grandparents are very hands on and I must give a big shout out to my father-in-law who was on hand for both of “The Calls” to lasso my children and take delivery of an online shop!
I would like to give a special mention to my grandparents. They have always encouraged my love of the macabre – I remember my grandad drawing me a Post-It of how the prisoners were hanged on York City Walls.
My grandad has had dementia for several years and continued to ask me what I was writing even when everyone else knew that I wasn’t. He died this summer and, to me, it’s poetic that his funeral took place the day that the #WriteMentor Showcase began. My grandparents’ house is now being cleared and in their documents were the posters for the play that I wrote at university and some of my short stories (one about a man who takes his wife’s corpse on a caravan holiday for one last trip!). I must thank them for continuing to believe in my dream, even when I’d forgotten to believe in it myself.
The Numbers that will irritate others
“Lady Em” is my first book and was rejected by three agents before I was offered representation. But, to pretentiously paraphrase Dr Henry Jekyll:
“Lady Em had long been caged, she came out roaring”.
Twitter & Instagram: @J_H_Birch