Sunday, 18 November 2012

How to write a novel despite everything

Jenny writes: Just how did my neighbour score a five figure advance on her first novel, and find herself at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution? Those were the questions on my mind as I walked down the road to interview Elaine Powell – pen name EM Powell – at her home in Prestwich, north Manchester this week. Setting aside all questions of personal envy (jealous, moi?) I had to find out how a regular mum and local government worker had got herself a literary agent in New York. And when was her medieval murder mystery – The Fifth Knight - coming out, anyway?

EM Powell isn’t a household name – yet. But this talented wordsmith, who works by day checking standards in care homes in Stockport is about to see her first novel, The Fifth Knight, published as a paperback and e-book by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer mystery imprint. In the meantime, The Fifth Knight is one of the first books to be published in serial format for Kindle. Currently, it's number 2 in the Kindle Serials chart. Readers – in America only at the moment – pay a one-off lower price for the whole novel, then it’s delivered to your e-reader every fortnight for six weeks.
It’s a way of buying fiction that harks back to Dickens: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and of course the inspiration for this blog, Our Mutual Friend, were all first published in instalments. “In a way we’ve come full circle,” says Elaine. “Amazon are trying to find a new way of engaging with readers.” She smiles at the thought of her book being displayed for sale on the same web page as Dickens' classics. It's a sweet reward after ten solitary years of writing and receiving rejections.
Elaine traces her desire to write back to the momentous events of September 11 2001 when “it felt like the world was ending” as she recalls, and she realised what she wanted to do with her life was write. With the encouragement of her husband, Jon, and the loan of a computer from her sister-in-law, Elaine produced a 150,000-word novel in eight months. “I absolutely loved it. I never had such a good time. But the book was shocking,” she recalls with a grin. She sent it to agents, and started receiving rejections.
 “Do you want to see my rejection letters?” she asks, and positively skips over to a cupboard to produce a tidy ring binder full of letters and emails. “I’ve had hundreds, hundreds,” she explains. “That’s part of what you do. You can see a trajectory from flat nos, to ‘send me a little bit’ to ‘send me a big bit’ to ‘yes’.”
For many would-be writers, that first “flat no” would have been enough to make them stop for good. But Elaine wasn’t disheartened in the least. “I just thought, it’s got my name on it and my book title on it. This is the beginning.”
The road to publication certainly hasn’t been smooth. In 2004, as she began a second novel, Elaine went blind in one eye. It was only thanks to advanced laser surgery from the doctors at Manchester Royal that her eyesight was saved. “They are my heroes,” she says, matter of factly.
Then in late 2005, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Elaine had major surgery and is now in full remission, but the experience shook her to the core. “I lost the muse for a while after the cancer. I genuinely don’t think I would ever have gone back to writing, but a wonderful writing partner, Pat Sider, coaxed me back.”
Perhaps part of her determination and resilience also stems from her ancestor, the Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, who was her grandfather’s uncle. Elaine has lived in the UK for 20 years now, but was born and brought up in Cork. While she says she could never write about him, Collins' influence steeped her family life as she grew up. “He died at 32, he was only a boy, they all were,” she says, “but I still regret not asking my grandfather, who was his nephew, more about him.”
Elaine studied English Literature and Geography at University College Cork, then left for London in her early twenties. She worked for many years in social care around London, met her husband, and moved to Manchester when their daughter came along.
At first, she felt very isolated living here, far from friends and family. But the writing began to fill a void. A turning point came when she joined the Romance Writers of America, which welcomes both published and unpublished writers and has a vast membership of more than 10,000. It publishes a monthly journal with articles about craft, the industry, contests and other writers. She joined, entered the contests, and started winning. Her profile and credibility grew. Modestly, Elaine ascribes at least some of her success to the organisation: “They grew me as a writer,” she says.
She started writing The Fifth Knight in October 2008. Unlike the first two novels, she planned it meticulously. And this time her hard work paid off. After calmly handling offers from three literary agents to represent her, she picked Josh Getzler to be her representative on St Patrick’s Day this year, and he secured her a five figure advance a couple of months later.
Next for EM Powell? While we await the full publication of The Fifth Knight (scheduled for spring 2013), its sequel is already spinning round in her imagination. And she’s writing a series of ‘steam punk’ novels set in a Victorian Manchester coroner’s office.
Her advice to would-be writers is a fitting epitaph to her own writing career so far: “Don’t give up – because if you give up you will never make it.”


  1. Wonderful, Ebba. Congratulations to Elaine Powell!



  2. Thanks Kaaren- and thanks Ebba for a great write-up!