Writementor success story: Clare Harlow

Clare Harlow first heard about WriteMentor in 2018 as she was preparing to send her Young Adult fantasy out into the world. She was in an okay place with the story and had taken a course taught by Catherine Johnson, found some critique partners, had been longlisted for a competition, and even received some agent requests.

But she just had this feeling that the manuscript wasn’t ready so, for Clare, the WriteMentor summer mentoring programme sounded like the perfect chance to do another round of revisions, but with structured support and accountability.

Clare shares her experience of the programme and how it gave her the resilience and taught her the importance of community.

What was your experience of the programme?

I should start by saying that I’m so glad I applied, because I wasn’t nearly as ready as I thought! My mentor in 2018 was the awesome Marisa Noelle. She helped me hone my cover letter, pitch and synopsis, and reminded me to always make the more interesting choice when I reached a fork in my narrative road. Marisa took on three mentees that year and we were like her little ducklings, paddling around in our group chat and exchanging ideas. I was so inspired I ended up doing a much bigger revision than I’d planned. I loved that story so much. It was pacy and fun and packed with all my favourite Young Adult fantasy tropes…

But it wasn’t the one. WriteMentor puts the focus firmly on the process rather than the showcase, but I’ll admit I got my hopes up a little when the requests came in. My shiny new submission package also won me a lot of full requests from cold querying and put me on the longlists of a couple more competitions. But despite some near misses and another round of edits, none of the agents offered.

WriteMentor, though, had taught me more than just craft. The honesty with which the mentors and other mentees shared their experiences of signing with agents and/or publishers (or indeed, to *not* signing) gave me the resilience to dust myself off and write something new. I poured my heart and soul into it, had a decent draft within months and was shortlisted for a competition, which led to more agent requests, and interest from some editors. I let myself hope again, just a little.

But while I’d pitched the story as a Young Adult thriller, it was also about mental health and grief and redemption. Essentially, it was trying to be too many things at once. As the feedback came in, the R&Rs piled up. I realised I’d need to rewrite, but I felt too close to the story to see it clearly.

Fortunately, WriteMentor mentee applications were open again! I was overjoyed when Cynthia Murphy said she thought she could help me. Cynthia, as well as being a generally wonderful human, is a plotting genius (as you’ll see if you read her phenomenal debut Last One to Die, which came out with Scholastic this year). Together, we transformed the structure of my story without losing its heart, and then I went away and rewrote the whole thing.

And I mean rewrote. Only one short chapter from the previous draft survived. The new version was exactly what I wanted the story to be though, and after the showcase I had a list of great agents who wanted to see it.

Tell us about your writing journey from start until now.

As a teenager, I was constantly making up stories based the worlds and characters of my favourite SFF novels, but I never thought writing could be more than a hobby, and at some point during my English degree I gave up writing altogether. Fast-forward to 2014, and I had a pretty horrible year health-wise, during which I spent a lot of time unable to leave my flat. Between the painkillers and the box sets and the endless banging from the building work going on upstairs, an idea for a story crept up on me. I hadn’t written for years and I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but something just clicked. Soon I was writing in every spare second I had.

WriteMentor, though, had taught me more than just craft. The honesty with which the mentors and other mentees shared their experiences of signing with agents and/or publishers gave me the resilience to dust myself off and write something new.

Can you tell us a little more about the book you worked on and signed with?

Although I signed with my agent quite soon after the 2020 showcase, it wasn’t with my WriteMentor manuscript. That story was fairly bleak, and the main character was quite close to my own teenage self; by the time of the showcase I’d begun to have concerns that doing more work on the story would be detrimental to my mental health. And alongside my WriteMentor revisions, I’d been writing something else – a Middle Grade fantasy that started as a fun side-project and then burrowed its way under my skin. I entered the first 3000 words into a competition run by Skylark Literary Agency.

One of the agents there, Amber Caravéo, had read both my WriteMentor manuscripts in one form or another and been incredibly generous in her feedback, and I’d always had a feeling we’d work well together. I was holding out hope for the shortlist, but to my astonishment, I won. Part of the prize was a Zoom call with Amber, who was keen to see the whole draft. I sent it to her about a week after I’d sent out my WriteMentor showcase requests.

Amber read both the Middle Grade and the latest version of the Young Adult and asked if we could speak again. I was nervous, but Amber put me at ease and answered all my questions. She had a clear plan for me and my writing – and crucially, it was a plan that matched mine. When she offered me representation, I went away to think about it, but although I had other agent interest, there wasn’t really any doubt in my mind.

What is your best piece of writing advice that you learned on the programme?

I sort of knew this already, but WriteMentor really taught me the importance of community. Finding a group (or in my case, various groups) of supportive and likeminded writers has genuinely improved my creative process, as well as giving me a wealth of industry knowledge. As Stuart White would say, writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t need to be.

Why do you think mentoring is important for writers?

That’s a tricky one, because the mentorship process is different for everyone. But for me, it was like having a safety net and springboard all at once. Both the mentors I worked with gave me the confidence to make the bold changes I needed to get ready for submission, but without ever losing the core of my story.

Twitter: @clareharlow

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