Ahead of our next London Writers Network event ‘Mentoring for Writers‘ on 15 November, Francesca Baker met with Cecilia Knapp to talk about the value of mentoring, learning how to write a novel, keeping motivated whilst writing, and how other writers inspire…
Francesca Baker: I’m here with Cecilia Knapp, who is going to be at the next London Writers Network event. This one is all about mentoring. Can you just tell us a little bit about who you are and what you’re doing, and then how mentoring’s been involved in your writing?
Cecilia Knapp: Yeah, for sure. I’m Cecilia. I’m a writer. I started off predominantly writing poetry and theatre, but in the last two years I have been trying to publish my first novel, which is obviously quite a shift from the writing that I’d done before and also just quite a large scale project.
Spread the Word helped me to find a mentor, and luckily through Arts Council funding I was able to find a really suitable mentor and to financially support myself throughout the process of writing this book.
My mentor is a writer called Kerry Hudson, who was recommended to me via my agent at Spread the Word because we have quite similar ambitions and quite similar themes in our writing. It’s been amazing, the process.
I think the most fundamental thing for me has been the encouragement that I’ve received from Kerry, my mentor. Writing a novel is just a huge scale process and can seem really, really intimidating and really daunting. There were many times when I felt like I was incapable or I was somehow silly for attempting such a large, ambitious project. But she’s been consistently encouraging.
It’s quite a long process writing and editing on your own. It’s become more collaborative and more fun, really, being able to bat ideas around and being able to ask questions if I need to, being able to take her advice. She’s amazing at drawing my attention to things that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen because all of this is so new to me, and she’s a much more experienced writer.
So it’s been fundamental, really.
Francesca Baker: Mentors are different to an editor or something. Is it more the bigger picture stuff rather than the nitty-gritty, like “change this paragraph here”? How does it work?
Cecilia Knapp: Right. Yeah, you’re right. It’s less the nitty-gritty. It’s more about the book as a whole and the more holistic elements, like how I’m feeling about writing it and tips to help with the writing process and tips to help motivate and pick you up when you’re feeling a bit lost in it. And then practical advice as well, like “Have you considered the skeletal structure of this book?” and “Maybe you can consider putting this here because it’ll move the plot forward slightly.”
One of the things that I struggled massively with was plotting and structuring. Kerry, my mentor, was able to encourage me to plot it out efficiently and provide her with a detailed timeline, which then in turn helped me and her see the book for what it is on a kind of full scale.
Yeah, so it’s less about the way paragraphs are going and your grammar and stuff. It’s more about the book as a whole.
Francesca Baker: What’s been the main difference for you in writing a novel as opposed to writing poetry?
Cecilia Knapp: Just on a logistical level, a poem is between 10 and 40 lines long. That’s not to say that it’s any less work, because you can spend weeks and weeks on a poem and not feel like a poem is really finished. But it’s a different type of skill. It’s more intricate. It’s about a moment rather than something which is many, many moments spanning over a larger period of time, which is a novel.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, that’s a nice way of putting it.
Cecilia Knapp: The detail in a novel, although it’s important to create a believable world and relatable characters, is less intrinsic. That’s something that I struggled with in my fiction writing, is putting too much detail in. Coming from a poetic background, I’ve been writing things where it’s all about the detail and condensing of moments.
That was something that was slowing the plot down a lot, so I had to let go of quite a lot of things that I think are nice poetic descriptions, but they’re actually not serving the story and don’t move it forward, really.
Francesca Baker: I guess that’s a key difference. One has a real plot and momentum, whereas one is more detail-focused and all about the moments.
So you said you’ve got the Arts Council Grants, the grants for the arts, and Spread the Word have helped you and Kerry has helped you, so it’s been a real support network. What’s been so valuable about that and what have you learned from writing in that way?
Cecilia Knapp: I feel like I just wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support from everyone that was supporting me on it, from writing a very lengthy funding application to finding a mentor that was going to be suitable to having the encouragement or having the validation of an organisation getting behind you makes you feel like you actually have a project worth seeing.
Francesca Baker: Worthwhile, yeah.
Cecilia Knapp: I’m really lucky I make my living as a writer, but I still have frequent moments where I feel like I’m lacking in confidence. Having the backing of an organisation, on a more emotional level and encouraging level, is really important – as well as the practical things that have been offered, which are more than I could ever hope for, really.
Francesca Baker: Brilliant. So you’ll be at the London Writers Network on the 15 November and able to chat to people and give advice on mentoring and mentee-ship.
Cecilia Knapp: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t met my mentor yet. We’ve done everything over email and phone. We’ll be chatting together on this panel about our relationship and how much it’s helped me. Lots of things to say about that, so it’ll be great to see people there.
Francesca Baker: Brilliant. Thank you so much.
Cecilia Knapp: Thank you.