Jane Austen recently gave me a reminder. Astute as ever, she nudged me into awareness of a certain fact: success is not only down to talent, work and persistence, but also that strange thing called serendipity, if we are open to it.
I will give you some examples from my own life, then come back to Jane. Here is my odd little sequence of serendipity.
Two years ago I got chatting to the lady who sat next to me in choir. I mentioned writing. “Writing?” she said. “My husband’s into that. He takes a really good magazine about it. I’ll bring one in for you to look at.” I made polite noises of appreciation, little knowing…
She brought the magazine to the next choir practice. It was Writing Magazine Competition Special.
Hmmm, I thought. Perhaps I’ll try writing a short story and entering a competition.
I did. The competition was called ‘Win Your Way To Swanwick’.
And I did win my way to Swanwick.
Swanwick Writers Summer School changed my Life. I’ll always be grateful to Writing Magazine for sponsoring my place, a prize way more valuable than money (which would only have disappeared into the hungry pit of household bills). Swanwick made me start taking myself seriously as a writer. The classes helped me with everything from novel-editing to Twitter. What’s more, I now had a load of lovely, supportive friends who wrote too. But another important thing happened while I was there. It started with the little pigs.
Out of over two hundred people, I knew not a soul when I arrived at Swanwick. So I went to an ice-breaker the first night. We were divided into groups and told to act out the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. I duly became a little pig, grunted, made faces, squealed and got myself eaten. I think it was the squealing that did it because after that I was head-hunted and harassed into taking part in a mini-panto later in the week - something I would never normally have the audacity to attempt. For this I was cast as a massive-bosomed and murderous Miss Muffet. The bosoms really were massive (fake!)
Could this lead to anything good? It could!
One of my fellow actors in a different sketch was was crime author and teacher Simon Hall, whose talk on novel-writing I’d just attended. Normally noticeable for his frenetically-patterned shirts, on this occasion Simon came out on stage wearing …well…. nothing. With only a guitar to hide his modesty.
Simon and I spotted during the evening that we had something in common: a willingness to humiliate ourselves in public. So we got talking.
Simon Hall later became my writing guru.
Simon has supported, advised and encouraged me through many a writing crisis. He told me to write more stories. He critiqued them. He told me to write a novel. He read the first pages and urged me to finish it. Without his kind words I don’t think I would have finished it. Without his faith in my talent I don’t think I would have entered it for competitions. I wouldn’t have got myself shortlisted for the Mslexia Prize and I wouldn’t have won 2nd place in the First Page of a Novel Award. Without his insistence I never would have gone to Winchester.
Winchester Writers' Festival is famed for its terrifying but productive one-to-one appointments with literary agents. I arrived early on the Thursday so thought I’d pop into town for some sight-seeing. As soon as I entered the cathedral I realised Evensong was in progress, so I tiptoed around, listening to the music. As the choir reached a thrillingly high note, I glanced down and suddenly realised I was standing over Jane Austen’s grave. I’d had no idea she was here. To find her right at the beginning of a writing festival was surely a good sign. Could it be that Jane was also encouraging me along with my Harp-Maker novel? I looked up to the stained glass window erected in her memory, and there, right in the middle, was man holding a harp. One of those moments.
(The Cathedral, Open Mic Night and lots of writers at Winchester)
At the festival I had an amazing time. The workshops and talks provided a wealth of inspiration and three agents asked to see the full manuscript of my novel. It was more than I’d dared to hope.
So thank you, thank you so much to Anitra from choir, to her husband, to Writing Magazine, to Swanwick, to Simon, to Winchester Writers' Festival... and to Jane Austen. Long may the serendipity continue!