Helen Hawkins - A Concert for Christmas

X: @helenwritesit

Instagram: @helenwritesit

Website: www.helenhawkins-author.com

Agent: Saskia Leach

Agency: Kate Nash Literary Agency

Website: www.katenashlit.co.uk

Check out our #Agent121 page to book your own appointment.

Helen Hawkins

Found her agent after coming Highly Commended in the 'I Am Writing Romance' Competition 2022

‘When I entered the ‘I Am Writing Romance’ competition, I never dreamed it would lead to agent representation and eventually publication of my debut novel. I was highly commended, but it was enough to get my manuscript in front of an agent and the rest, as they say, is history! If you are even remotely considering entering an I Am In Print competition, I wouldn’t hesitate to get involved – it could change your life!’

IAIP: How did you begin writing A Concert for Christmas?

HH: In November 2019 I decided to try NaNoWriMo and got to something like 47,000 words and ran out of story. In my mind I’d written the whole thing and wondered ‘how do people do this?’ I’d been following author Milly Johnson for a while on Twitter and I tweeted her to ask how she got to the 80,000 word point and she replied! It was the most wonderful moment. A real-life author replied and gave me a little bit of advice! I was so starstruck, but it spurred me on, and I started to take it really seriously. I joined the Curtis Brown Creative course where we edited the whole book as part of the course. I also did some work with a literary consultancy where an author mentored me and then it went through the Romantic Novelist Association’s New Writers Scheme. It really is the most edited book that has ever existed in the history of edited books!

In about 2021 I started submitting it and was rejected many times. I entered a few competitions and that’s how I came across I Am In Print. I saw your competitions and entered the one for writing romance. I didn’t win but was highly commended, which was enough to get my manuscript on the desk of Saskia Leach at Kate Nash Literary Agency. Saskia asked for the full manuscript, and I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then another digital publisher showed some interest, but I wasn’t hugely convinced. I was quite tentative about it as something didn’t feel quite right, but I used it as an opportunity to nudge Saskia and when she heard that someone else was interested, she said she would read it that day. We arranged a meeting and that was that!

So, it was 25 years of hard work, but about six months of being in the right place at the right time on several occasions that got me there in the end.

IAIP: What happened after you signed with Saskia? Did it go quiet while she was trying to get you a publishing deal?

HH: I signed the deal around October time and between October and December we did a slight rewrite where she asked me to think about an epilogue. It wasn’t a huge job so once that was done she prepared the submission package and that went out in January. The submission was sent to a massive list, but we talked through the list and what I wanted. I really wanted to be able to see my book on the shelf and be able to hold it and get it into libraries so it took four or five months of depressing rejection emails and at that point I couldn’t see it happening.

Then we had interest from a digital first publisher and so a similar thing happened as when I signed with Saskia. She then prompted everyone saying we had an offer and a couple of people said no straight away, but Allison Busby said they wanted to read it and then made an offer. So, I had two to choose from in the end and that was around July/August time.

IAIP: Once you accepted your publishing deal, did you need to do more editing?

HH: I didn’t have to do a big developmental edit, but I did have to do a copy edit and it turns out I’m awful at timelines; I’ve just had the copy edit back for my second book and all of the comments are about the dates or timings!

After the copy edit, I got to look through and proofread everything. At that point it is set out like a book so you’re proofing to make sure that the pages are in the right order as well as the punctuation is right. I made a point of reading it from start to finish every single time I edited it.

IAIP: Can you tell us what A Concert for Christmas is about?

HH: It’s about a character called Sophie. In the classic Hallmark tradition, she has moved to a small town to escape her past. She is a primary school teacher and is organising a Christmas concert with the local community choir which is made-up of every type of person imaginable. This means having a cast of side characters as well, which was fun to create. There are a few people in my life who are going to read it and think ‘that person looks a little bit familiar’!

While she is organising the choir the Musical Director is called away at the last minute and is replaced by somebody very attractive. When he turns up it takes a few seconds for her to realise she’s met him before.

IAIP: Was it your first published book?

HH: The year before I entered your competition, I entered a competition for a romantic Christmas novel run by Penguin Michael Joseph. I got through to the shortlist. I didn’t win but the shortlisted authors started a Facebook group called the Penguins because it was a Penguin competition. Some people in the group decided they could use it as a real opportunity so 12 of them got together (because that’s a nice festive number), and wrote a book called More Than Mistletoe which was a selection of 12 Christmas short stories. In Christmas 2022 we self-published a book called The Mistletoe Mix Tape. Each of the twelve stories are named after a Christmas tune. Mine is called Santa Baby and if you like a Hallmark Christmas film, then that’s what you’re going to get from my story. We are a really diverse group and are really inclusive, so you’ve got everything from traditional heterosexual romances, homosexual romances, LGBTQ+, and older people falling in love. It is literally every kind of love story that you could think of. Some of them are tearjerkers and some of them are hilarious. It’s a real mix.

IAIP: How did you find writing a short story compared to writing a full novel?

HH: I thought I’d be fine because the idea was that we would write between 6,000 and 10,000 words and then between us all it would be a full-length book. I actually struggled to hit the word count as I can write really long stories or really short stories, but I struggle to do in-between. I’m definitely an under writer so was able to write 3000 or 4000 words and then make it better and that’s what happens when I write longer works as well: I’ll get to 50,000 words, rest it for a couple of months and then come back to it. Then I get the post-it-notes out and think about what else I need to add. Quite often it’s the setting. When I go back and look at what I’ve written it often is just happening in space and no one knows where they are or what time of day it is.

IAIP: How do you begin writing a book?

HH: I usually put together the skeleton of a story and then work out what the motivation and goal of the characters are. What is bothering them or what deeper things are they going through? I have an idea about that, but often add it later, once I get to know them a bit and also sometimes my characters do things that I haven’t told them to do. I’ll be writing and then all of a sudden they have a new hobby or can play an instrument that I didn’t know about! Sometimes as I’m writing I’ll be like ‘Oh so that’s the thing that you struggle with or that you’re worried about’, or conflicts will happen that I didn’t know they were going to have. That is when the magic happens.

Sometimes you can plan your two main characters and know they are going to think this and that and know the reasons they will clash but actually it is only when they meet on the page that those things get ironed out.

When Saskia was submitting to publishers on my behalf, I didn’t stop writing so we were able to say there were other books in progress and I ended up with a two-book deal. In actual fact, both of the books were already finished. The second book needed a developmental edit, but it existed, and it was book length and was set in the same place so I suppose there was a benefit in that I was offering them a kind of series. The third book was in a slightly ropey state and needs rewriting because it involves Ofsted in the school and there has been a lot of stuff in the news recently about Ofsted.

IAIP: Do you think it helps to have the books set in the same place?

HH: Yes, if you can get your setting right you can bring characters in and out of it. It is difficult because you want to write because you love writing but there is also a marketing side. I did it accidentally really, because it’s set in a Cotswold market town, which I understand American readers quite like and then it’s mainly set in a primary school which is full of interesting people who do lots of different types of jobs so that worked quite nicely.

IAIP: Is there anything you would advise people based on your experience now? What do you wish you had known at the beginning before you started?

HH: I wish I had started sooner. I started in 2019 when my daughter was one and it was a glorious time because she still napped. That was when I did my writing as time became really precious. If I had an hour I wouldn’t just sit there and watch television because I knew I had a finite amount of time before my daughter woke up. I think back to all those times before I was in a relationship and before I had a baby that I just used to watch repeats of Downton Abbey and think how much I could have written.

I also think getting a good writing habit is also important. Your mind and body get to know what is expected of it and is ready to write at 7am.

Also, you can e-mail word documents to your kindle, and read it as a reader rather than a writer. The first time I did that was very exciting.

IAIP: Thank you for your time, Helen. It has been lovely to talk to you.

HH: I wouldn’t be here without you guys, genuinely, so a really big thanks because you got my manuscript in front of someone important and that’s huge, so thank you!

X: @helenwritesit

Instagram: @helenwritesit

Website: www.helenhawkins-author.com

Agent: Saskia Leach

Agency: Kate Nash Literary Agency

Website: www.katenashlit.co.uk

Check out our #Agent121 page to book your own appointment.