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Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Wendy Wallace on Being a Debut Novelist

Many thanks to Wendy Wallace, author of one of my Top 10 Summer Reads 2012 The Painted Bridge, for writing the first in a new series of Guest Author posts for my blog On the Literary Sofa.  Wendy’s article gives a fascinating insight into what so many of us dream of – becoming a published debut novelist, and is followed by my Mini-Review of her book.

‘My first novel – The Painted Bridge – came out at the end of May, published by Simon & Schuster. It is the story of Anna Palmer, tricked into a private asylum by her new husband. Despite her recurrent visions, Anna Palmer has no doubt about her own sanity. But over the months that follow, she has to learn to see clearly and re-appraise not just the present but the past.

Writing a novel had been a lifelong dream for me. Helped by a great creative writing class in Hackney, I attempted a novel in my early 30s. I sent the manuscript to an agent, received his rejection – and for many years got on with other things.

Coming back to the prospect of a novel, three years ago, I was in a different situation. I’d written two non-fiction books – Oranges and Lemons, on a year in the life of a school in inner city London, and Daughter of Dust, the remarkable story of a Sudanese woman abandoned by her society. And I was older.

Writing the non-fiction books gave me experience in writing at book-length and a stronger sense of the narrative drive needed to sustain a long piece of work.

Crucially, by then I had a wonderful agent – Ivan Mulcahy of Mulcahy Conway Associates, who I’d worked with on Daughter of Dust and who was encouraging me to write a novel. Being older increased the sense I had of it being now or never.

Still, when you sit down to begin, you are alone with the blank page or screen. Having decided to set my story in the mid-Victorian period, I spent weeks reading widely about that time. I came across the photographs made by Dr Hugh Diamond of patients in a Victorian asylum and from looking at and thinking about these images came up with the main plot – of a visionary woman trapped in a private madhouse, and a photographer who believes that insanity can be read from the face.

A theme of ‘seeing’ was emerging. Over the following weeks, I created other characters, developed the ideas into a 2,000 word synopsis – that my agent liked – and began.

I imagine all writers encounter the same hurdles, in first novels. It takes stamina, to keep going. Courage, to risk investing so much in a labour of love that has no guarantee of finding a publisher. And self-discipline – because most of the flourishes that display your writerly skill soon have to be sacrificed to the demands of the story.

Writing The Painted Bridge took two years and over that period – which I couldn’t have got through without support from my family, friends and agent – my definition of success was to complete the novel.

I did finish it and in autumn of 2010, my agent took it out on submission. During the weeks that followed I was trying to maintain a dual state of mind – hoping that the novel would be picked up, but trying at the same time to maintain a sense of acceptance about the fact that it might not be. I began a new novel, because while the publishing world may accept or reject your writing, only you control whether or not you keep producing.

Three months later, I got a call from Ivan to say that an American publisher had made an offer. It was early evening in February, and I was out. I bought a bottle of icy champagne and took it home on the bus, to tell my husband the news. With that offer, my dream had been realized.

Further interest followed and it remained an exciting and thrilling period as editors read the book and responded to it. A few weeks later, we signed a contract with Simon & Schuster in the UK, and Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in the US.

A form of phase two then began. The Painted Bridge had a scheduled publication date and was soon listed on Amazon, albeit without a cover image or any details. Editing took me deep back into the book I’d believed finished; I learned a lot from the editorial comments of both my English and American editors.

Copy edits followed and I went through the book again, line by line, word by word. It was a rigorous process and once more I learned things from the UK and US copy editors. At the same time, I was trying to grow my new novel.

There was just over a year between signing the contract with the publishers and The Painted Bridge appearing in shops. I created a website and Facebook author page, got on Twitter, thought of ways to publicise the novel and had discussions with my editors over the jackets. It was a time of anticipation and optimism.

But there are more complex emotions too; it’s daunting to think of work you have created very privately being made public. There is also anxiety about having got it ‘right’, in terms of research. I have two large non-fiction subjects in the novel; Victorian mental health and early photography.

Publication day somehow moved from the far horizon to being imminent. The launch evening was a highlight and the support from friends and family as well as from the publishers and my agent was amazing. Afterwards, the house was filled with lilies; cards lined the mantelpiece; my new dress hung on its hanger.

Then comes the best bit: people outside the publishing process reading the story and believing in the characters, feeling for them, travelling for a while alongside them. That – along with the gritty pleasure of working on a new book – is the reward.’


My Mini-Review of The Painted Bridge

A rich and rewarding read, strong on evocative period detail and atmosphere, with a compelling story, elegant writing and very engaging characterization.  Surprisingly warm in tone and at times even funny, a welcome counterbalance to the deeply shocking treatment of women and disturbing approaches to mental health in the Victorian era.   I’m very pleased to have included The Painted Bridge in my Summer Reads, and recommend it to readers who enjoy the writing of Sarah Waters and Jane Harris.

I could certainly relate to much of what Wendy said and found the story of her journey to publication inspiring.   I’d love to hear what you thought, and what experiences you’ve had if you’re a writer.


Next week I’ll be posting a feature on Weather in Fiction.  Wonder what gave me that idea…


About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.


21 thoughts on “Guest Author – Wendy Wallace on Being a Debut Novelist

  1. Great article! Wendy’s journey to publication is inspiring and I’ve now got another book to add to my TBR pile!

    Posted by helenmackinven | June 11, 2012, 10:33
  2. Love the guest post! I’m always interested to hear authors’ stories about how they got published, and how long it took. I applaud all the writers out there who have the courage to put their work out there and keep on writing.

    Congratulations, Wendy!

    Posted by Writerlious | June 11, 2012, 16:33
    • Erin I absolutely agree, every success story I hear spurs me on. What I particularly liked about Wendy’s article is that despite her impressive track record in journalism and non-fiction, she still experienced some of the same doubts and anxieties we all face and was willing to share those too.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 11, 2012, 18:48
  3. That’s such an interesting piece, thank you. I’m at the waiting for responses from editors stage, so hope I go on to all the other stages described here 🙂

    Posted by Louise | June 12, 2012, 11:53
    • Hi Louise, glad you enjoyed the Guest Author post. How nail-bitingly exciting it must be for you, waiting to hear from publishers, I am really rooting for you. I am in the waiting to hear back from agents stage. The worst bit is all the waiting, and I’m told that never changes!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 12, 2012, 12:15
      • Isabel, absolutely, there seems to be an awful lot of waiting in publishing! I’ve had long days waiting to hear from my agent, I leave the laptop on all day and I keep going over our Broadband usage limit, funny (and annoying)! It’s nerve-racking. I do have an editor interested in my novel at the moment, and will be meeting her soon, so I’m quite excited about that. I’ll keep you posted. Also had some helpful feedback from editors, those rejecting my work have actually explained why, it’s writerly heaven! Good luck with your waiting, I do hope you get good news.

        Posted by Louise | June 12, 2012, 12:34
      • Inspiring piece – thank you. It was interesting to read about the editing process after the book was accepted. I’m in the ‘obsessive [self!-]editing’ phase and wonder if work ever feels finished?! Congratulations Wendy – your book sounds fascinating. I’ll look forward to reading it.

        Posted by Sarah Hegarty | June 12, 2012, 12:41
      • Interesting question re the editing! I’ve heard so many authors say they would go back and change things about books they’ve already had published but I guess there comes a point where someone has to decide that it’s done. Thanks for commenting (wasn’t that difficult in the end, was it?!)

        Posted by Isabel Costello | June 12, 2012, 14:39
  4. Hi all, thanks for the responses. I relate to Louise and Isabel, waiting for the opinions of others – all subjective, in the end. The only remedy for me was to get on with the next idea, and tell myself that the goals were longer term. Even when published, you’re waiting for the opinion of readers and reviewers. Sarah, I read recently the saying ‘works of art are never finished – only abandoned’. Ring any bells?! Wishing you all the very best with your work.

    Posted by Wendy Wallace | June 12, 2012, 14:48
  5. So, I think you know by now that you’re one of my chosen Inspirational Bloggers, much deserved of the award for, well, writing blogs which make me think and smile and encourage me to put pen to paper. Congratulations! I’m afraid that I need to ask some work of you though. The rules, if you choose to accept them, follow. It took me a bit of time to put together my post but it was fun. I hope you’ll take up the challenge and look forward to reading your post 
    1. Display the award logo somewhere on the blog.
    2. Link back to the blog of the person who nominated you.
    3. State seven things about yourself.
    4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award and provide links to their blogs.
    5. Notify those bloggers that they have been nominated and of the award’s requirements.

    PS I’ve spent so long composing my own post and finding links for my chosen faves, that I haven’t managed to read your latest post. I will, I will!

    Posted by Jackie Buxton | June 12, 2012, 23:37
    • Thank you Jackie! When I started the blog last September, little did I know what lay ahead! I am amazed and delighted that so many people read and enjoy it (or so they say) – that really makes it worth doing. I must warn you though that it may take me a while to get round to fulfulling your T&Cs. The bit that worries me is finding 15 blogs I really rate that haven’t been nominated already…
      PS I know you’ll be inspired by Wendy’s post when you get time to look at it. Definitely one for the likes of you and me, living on hope!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 13, 2012, 10:10
      • You’re right, Isabel, it is a bit time consuming even if I did have good fun reading other people’s blogs, ahem, all day. Just fit it in when you can, there’s no deadline.
        Off to read Wendy’s post!

        Posted by Jackie Buxton | June 13, 2012, 16:20
  6. Thank you for a lovely post, really interesting to hear how Wendy’s writing progressed, and the process through to publication. I have a copy of this novel and am very much looking forward to reading it.

    Posted by Lindsay | June 13, 2012, 13:16
  7. Thanks for sharing your journey, Wendy, I love the idea of you sitting on the bus with the champagne in your hand/bag, calmly waiting to go whooopeeee! I really like the sound of your book, sounds right up my street, so I’m just popping over to Amazon now but don’t tell my long-suffering husband…

    Posted by Jackie Buxton | June 13, 2012, 16:26
  8. Wendy and Isabel, I had to add my own comment on what a wonderful, inspiring post this is. I have read it several times, and each time I feel thrilled for Wendy and more hopeful about my own prospects in this business. I love how you describe your writing process and how your ideas for the book formed, and your words of wisdom about starting another book, because while getting your book published is not under your control, creating is. Thanks so much.

    Posted by Kristin | June 13, 2012, 20:57
  9. Hi Jackie, hi Kristin, so lovely to read your responses! Jackie – my lips are sealed 😉 I felt shell shocked, on that bus ride home. I’d been in mourning, for the book I’d begun to think wouldn’t find a place out there. Kristin – I have come to the conclusion that my aim was and is to write good books. That’s my aim with the one I’m working on now and it is a tough struggle that no one but the writer can determine. I think it’s worth doing even for its own sake. Wishing you all the very best on the path.

    Posted by Wendy Wallace | June 13, 2012, 22:02


  1. Pingback: Top 10 Summer Reads 2012 « Isabel Costello - June 11, 2012

  2. Pingback: Guest Author – Barry Walsh on Writing fiction from your own life | Isabel Costello - July 2, 2013

  3. Pingback: Guest Author – Wendy Wallace on Setting a historical novel in a foreign country | Isabel Costello - September 2, 2013

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