In 2017 Charlene Allcott was selected to be one of the twelve writers mentored under the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme, a huge movement to find writers from a variety of backgrounds. This year, Charlene publishes her debut novel, The Reinvention of Martha Ross. Here is Charlene's own story on how she became a published author.
Last year started as a difficult one for me - I separated from my husband, my partner of fifteen years. There’s a reason that process is always popping up on those lists of the top ten most stressful things that can happen to a person because it was a hell on earth. I don’t believe in the concept of hell but if I did, I think it would look like living in the same house as the spouse you’re divorcing because neither of you can afford to move out. I realised I only had two things I could turn to - wine or writing and I chose both, because no matter how stuck you are; no matter how many barriers you face, you always have your story, and I started to tell mine.
Well not exactly mine, I started to write the story of Martha, a woman nothing like me. She’s a black mother, living in Brighton and going through a separation. She has a part time job, money worries and her self-esteem is hanging by a thread but she also has a speck of hope. Martha’s hope is that she can find love again and she decides to look for it online. I know what you’re thinking, shaky concept. I mean who would be stupid enough to enter the soul-destroying arena of online dating in the wake of a divorce? But when you write you can push boundaries and it felt great to write something fun and light-hearted, when I wasn’t feeling particularly fun or light-hearted myself.
I’ve dabbled in writing before. I have a parenting blog and have done a couple of creative writing courses but I didn’t entertain the thought of writing novels because I had read the bios of novelists on the inside covers of books and they always seemed to say, ‘such and such lives with their white middle class partner, in their white middle class town, with their white middle class children and white middle class cat’ and even when they didn’t say that, that’s what I saw because sometimes I think you see what you want to see, especially when things seem difficult. Sometimes you need someone or something to slap you round the face and show you the truth of what you can be and that’s what the WriteNow process did for me. When I applied I thought, maybe I have something to say; I didn’t think much further than that. I didn’t think a few weeks later I would be in this very building at an event much like this one.
In October last year had just finished an overnight shift at my job; I jumped straight on the train, followed the little dot on my phone to this building, looked up and thought, girl, you do not belong here. And I carried that feeling all the way up in the lift, and as I got my plate of fancy, tiny sandwiches and as lots of wonderful people who actually work in publishing, making real life books made genuine conversation with me. Every time someone spoke to me I thought they were going to say, hi sorry we made a mistake, can I just slip out the fire exit and I just tried to avoid that encounter by speaking to as few people as possible.
I did speak to some other writers and during every one of those conversations I asked the person, why are you here? And what I meant by that was, what makes you identify yourself as underrepresented because I genuinely believed that was the only reason we were there. I sat at the back of the last table, in the corner of the room and I said to the woman next to me, ‘I feel like we’re in one of those big holding rooms on the X Factor’, because it really did. I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t have a good enough sob story to get through to judges houses. Then, as we were greeted as the London finalists, I had one of those moments. You know when in films the camera zooms in on the main character and the people around them go into soft focus and you understand that they are having a really, important realisation. I wasn’t being addressed as one of underrepresented or one of the lucky ones. I was sat at that table because I was being offered a seat at the table. That’s what this scheme is about and I hope that for anyone that hasn’t yet had their moment of realisation they take it now. You are here because you have something to say, something that Penguin Random House think people may want to hear and no matter how much further you go in the process do not give up that seat.
Since I pressed send on the first chapter of my novel, I have gained strength.
It’s not just lip service, WriteNow back up their words. One of the first things offered to mentees is membership to The Society of Authors, basically the trade union of writers. I mean, what says you belong more than being a member of something? With a badge and everything (okay you don’t actually get a badge but you get my point.)
The scheme also actively encourages mentees to build relationships, part of the programme includes a coffee with an agent and I have been offered opportunities to speak to press; essentially Penguin Random House is ready to be your big sister, looking out for you on the first day of school. Actually, better than a big sister because they’re not gonna ignore you in the playground.
After I accepted the mentorship there were a couple of weeks before I was told who my mentor was. Obviously, I interpreted this as the dark silence of regret on PRH’s part but when I got in touch with Siena, our contact for the scheme, I was told that they were just taking the time to find the most appropriate mentor for me. And they really did, my mentor Francesca Best is a senior commissioning editor at Transworld and she has worked on tonnes of authors, authors I have stuffed into my suitcase before a holiday. More simply put, she’s kind of a big deal. At our introduction, she spent a lot of time telling me who she is and why she could support me and I was like, you work in publishing, that’s enough. The point is, it was and is important to PRH that I understood I was wanted; I had a right to be in the position I was in.
There are things you do when you think you have a right to be somewhere, that I would like to encourage you to do. When you feel you have a right to be somewhere you believe you can ask questions. There is so much knowledge on offer in this room and throughout this journey. When you have your one to one ask whatever you need, the time is for you. I feel I can ask my mentor anything from a niggle over a Character name to the overall structure and I am never made to feel like my questions aren’t valid. When you think you have a right to be somewhere you offer your opinions because you understand that they’re just as worthy as anyone else’s. Our experiences are important and unique to our position, please don’t be afraid to share them. When you know you have a right to be somewhere you build real connections. I have made many relationships throughout this process but one of the most significant is the ones that I’ve made with fellow writers. I’m in a Whatsapp group with the other mentees where we remind each other that we can actually write and I’m also part of a wonderful Facebook group with most of the finalists from last year and in it we share opportunities and successes and ask each other’s opinions. It’s a truth that there’s strength in numbers and from all the people I have encountered since I pressed send on the first chapter of my novel, I have gained strength.
So, finally, I just want to say that I wish you all every success in the world. Please bleed this process dry. Eat all the little sandwiches, introduce yourself to as many people as you can, share your ideas, live your passion. You have something to say and your voice has been heard. Get your feet under the table.
Find out more about WriteNow here
More about the author
'One of the freshest, funniest, most exciting new voices I've read for a long time.' Jane Fallon
Meet Martha Ross. She dreams of being a singer, but she’s been working in a call centre for far too long. She’s separating from her husband, the father of her eighteen-month-old son. And she’s moving back home to her parents, toddler in tow.
Life has thrown her a few lemons . . . but Martha intends to make a gin and tonic.
It’s time to become the woman she’s always wanted to be. And at least her mum’s on hand to provide free childcare – along with ample motherly judgement, of course.
But Martha’s attempts at reinvention – from writing a definitive, non-negotiable list of everything she’s looking for in a new man, to half-marathons, business plans and meditation retreats – tend to go awry in the most surprising of ways. And soon she comes to realise that in order to find lasting love, happiness and fulfilment, she needs to find herself first . . .
Who said starting over was easy?
A warm, vibrant and painfully funny novel that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had their heart broken, hasn’t quite got their sh*t together yet, or who finds themselves wide awake at 3am thinking, ‘How did I get here?’
buy the book