Congratulations Hampshire Winner

Have you noticed that there has been no rain or hideous weather on a Tuesday night since the Hampshire Writers’ Society monthly meetings have been cancelled? You’ll also be pleased to know that the Society will be running its monthly competitions as normal – ish! The details for all the competitions are contained on our website. To get you in the mood here’s the first instalment of Louise Morrish’s story. Louise has long been a member of the Hampshire Writers’ Society; in fact you may well have heard her writing as, on many an occasion, she’s been a monthly competition winner too.

Louise Morrish, member and winner of the Daily Mail first Novel Competition.

What was the competition?  The Daily Mail’s First Novel competition to find an unpublished, unrepresented, debut author. A friend told me about it back in January 2019.

And the prize?   A Penguin Random House publishing contract with a £20K advance, and representation by literary agency, LBA Books. All you had to do to enter was submit your first chapter, a 400 word synopsis and a short covering letter.

Is this your first novel?  I write historical fiction and have had a some very limited interest in the drafts of two novels, but nothing more and those drafts now languish on my hard drive. THE COFFIN CLUB was a new idea.

Where did you get such an intriguing idea?  Two ideas came to me at the same time but from different sources. I combined them to produce my story. The first came from my mum, who told me about a club in New Zealand that she’d read about called, The Coffin Club.

What is a Coffin Club?  Coffin clubs bring people together to discuss and prepare for death. Using photographs and artwork representing their lives and loves, members build and decorate their own coffins. One woman, for instance, has pasted a full-size photograph of Elvis Presley to the underside of her coffin lid – she’ll be able to lie for eternity beneath her heartthrob.

And the second idea? A friend told me how she’d recently met the fourth oldest person in Britain. Apparently, this 110 year old woman was not impressed; “she would prefer to be the oldest.” I mean, who wants to be the fourth?

What about your characters?  I created Betty Shepherd, a 110 year old supercentenarian, the fifth oldest person in Britain and also a member of Guildford’s exclusive Coffin Club. I gave her a live-in carer, Tali a young gay woman from Mauritius with complex issues of her own, and a nasty son, Leo who wants to put Betty in a care home.

But I felt that something was missing, I didn’t have that unique angle; that crucial spark of originality.

So, what happened?  I was out running one day, pondering the book and it came to me – Betty has a secret past. During research for my previous novels, I had come across references to war-time women being recruited into a clandestine organisation called The Special Operations Executive. What if Betty had been an SOE agent? She’d have been taught the art of silent killing. And then…what if she put those skills to use, bumping off her rivals at The Coffin Club? A killer plot!

So that’s what you sent to the Daily Mail’s First Novel Competition?  Yes, and then I forgot about it, for months.

Business as usual then?  I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing, at the University of Winchester, hoping to finish The Coffin Club as part of my dissertation. In the meantime, I plodded along writing bits here and there, in between work and family commitments whilst running ultra-marathons in my spare time. No panic or pressure, because I really had no hope of ever seeing any of my scribblings in print.

How long until you heard from the competition? It was October last year.

How did you find out? It was one evening after work; Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books rang to tell me that I had been shortlisted.

How exciting must that have been? At that news, I had to sit down! Luigi then asked me some questions:

‘Was I represented by any agents?’

‘No.’

‘Had I published a novel before?’

‘No.’

‘Would I take editorial direction?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s what all authors say. Will you REALLY take suggestions?’

‘YES.’

And he said he’d be in touch again in 2 or 3 days with the result. Good luck.

So, you were left hanging? That must’ve been excruciating.  Two weeks passed. They were the slowest, most miserable two weeks of my life. I stopped sleeping properly and I kept my phone on me constantly; even at work. I work in a school – it’s actually a disciplinary issue to have your phone on you.

Did people keep bugging you for any update?  I had only told my mum, my husband, my three kids and one special writing buddy. All of them, I’d sworn to secrecy.

I really didn’t think that I’d win at all. But I did think that Luigi could at least tell me I had NOT won. I was actually very upset that no one had bothered to ring me back and so after 2 weeks of hearing nothing, I stopped carrying my phone on me at work.

Poor you! My Master’s had begun, so I concentrated on that.

And there was no sign of the competition at all? I was in the Martial Rose Library, on campus, searching for a text to use in my first assignment, when I spotted the book, BODY LANGUAGE by DESMOND MORRIS. I don’t usually believe in signs, but when I pulled it off the shelf, it fell open at a full page photograph of the oldest supercentenarian in the world – a 121 year old French woman.

The next day, I got the phone call telling me that The Coffin Club had won.

Luigi Bonomi, the Managing Director of LBA Books was now your agent. What’s he like? Luigi could not have been lovelier. He told me that of all the entries they had read, mine had been voted winner unanimously.

So, who were the other judges? The judges included FERN BRITTEN and PETER JAMES, as well as imprint of Penguin, Cornerstones’ editor, SELINA WALKER. I googled her; I couldn’t help it. Selina Walker edits such people as ANTHONY HOROWITZ, LISA JEWELL, HARLAN COBAN…and now she would be editing me.

Was The Coffin Club finished?  I’d only written five chapters. It was after the Daily Mail called me and conducted a half hour phone interview, a two hour photo shoot with photographer and make-up artist at my house the day after that – the article appeared in print and on their website the next day, the local press, and the Bookseller also ran articles; and then Twitter went a bit mad and everyone in my entire world knew. Suddenly, it struck me; this was real. I would actually have to write a whole book good enough for Penguin to publish. I stopped sleeping again. Then Selina Walker from penguin emailed to say hello and congratulate me…and she asked to see the rest of the novel!

Frantically, I checked the competition terms and conditions, it specifically said that the novel didn’t have to be complete. Fully expecting an email back saying: ‘Thanks, your first chapter was really good, but these are rubbish. We have changed our minds. You haven’t won after all.’ I sent off the five chapters, I wasn’t happy with them but then I never am.

So, what did Selina say? Several days passed before her email came. It said: ‘These are terrific. We have some suggestions. Please come to Penguin HQ in London on 4th November, we’ll celebrate your win, talk about any changes to the plot, and take you out to lunch at the Tate Britain.’

Part two of Louise’s story next week.

Report by L Nightingale.