I promise we didn’t commission the Novelistas to write this account of their experiences at last year’s Mslexia Novel School. They pitched the article themselves, and wrote every word. So thank you Sarah, Ninette, Mel and Georgie – we couldn’t have put it better ourselves!
One year ago: Four women writers at four ends of the country. Each of us had one ambition: to finally nail that novel. We were all struggling to find our way, when our email in-boxes pinged with an invitation: Mslexia’s first ever Novel School was opening its doors.
Sarah was working on the third draft of her book when she got the email. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Although she’d been writing non-fiction professionally for over a decade, she had little in the way of a fiction writer’s network, and the lot of the lonely scribe was taking its toll.
Ninette had already self-published a memoir and had drafted – but not finished – two novels. When she got the email, she saw a chance to work out what was stopping her from reaching the finish line.
Writing a novel was something Mel had always wanted to do. While she had completed a creative writing MA a few years earlier, changes in her life had made her realise she needed to prioritise her writing again, take her novel idea and make it a reality.
Meanwhile, Georgie had just been made redundant from her job as a lecturer when she got the email. ‘It was perfect timing’, Georgie said. ‘I was about to embark on a period of travelling, house-sitting and full-time writing. Now here was an invitation to dig deep into the one thing I had always wanted and planned – to write a novel.’
Some of us had our doubts about signing up. ‘At the time I was only 28,’ Mel said. ‘The imposter syndrome was real, and I was concerned that, being so early on in my writing career, I wasn’t the target market. I was completely wrong.’ Sarah was also nervous: ‘I was convinced I was about to embarrass myself in front of women with far more ability and experience than I could ever hope to have,’ she admitted.
But we each summoned our courage and took the plunge.
The 2022 Mslexia Novel School brought together women of all ages and levels of experience; from a wide range of backgrounds, places and vocations; writing in wildly different genres, in wildly different circumstances. A collective experience of profound supportiveness, encouragement and positivity unfolded over five days.
The course exceeded all our expectations. Each day brought new challenges and inspiration. We always began with morning warm-up exercises for the entire intake of 50 women. We would then split into smaller classes for workshops focusing on the topic of the day, which included everything from character to plot to world-building.
The insights into novel writing provided by the tutors were invaluable. We each came away brimming with ideas and ready to tackle our own projects. Margaret Wilkinson's voice session particularly resonated with us all, and prompted us to experiment with our stories. The final day focused on goal setting, and provided both practical advice and helpful motivation for the challenges of novel writing to come. There was also plenty of time during the week to get stuck into our own works-in-progress, taking the lessons we had learnt and putting them straight into practice.
Writing a novel isn’t simply putting the words on the page, but is a task that involves your mind, body and spirit. So the sessions with Rosie Garland and Bec Evans, which bookended each day and helped to manage the flow of such an intensive week, were essential. These sessions made us step back and think about the big picture of being a writer, including how to build resilience and overcome obstacles – important lessons that we regularly return to one year later.
But what really surprised and awed us about the Mslexia Novel School was how valuable and wonderful it was to hear the words of other writers. We were full of admiration for one another, and very quickly developed a strong supportive bond, encouraging one another to take risks and try the new approaches that were being presented to us. We celebrated each others’ wins and not-so-secretly wished we had one another’s’ talent. ‘At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I was a novelist,’ Ninette said. ‘But by the end of the week I felt confident enough to carry on with my work in progress.’
As the week drew to a close, Georgie proposed that we all stay in touch and tentatively suggested that we share some of our writing. Finding a writing group wasn’t something we had anticipated when we signed up for the Novel School – we are scattered across the UK and living very different lives. But we were all keen to give it a try. And so it was that the Novelistas Writing Group burst into enthusiastic existence.
The Novelistas were clear from the beginning that our group would be whatever we wanted and needed. We have no real rules, no leadership structure – essentially, we are a group of writers supporting one another in any way that we can.
These days, our meetings are not just to discuss work. We celebrate successes, provide consolation for rejections or bad writing weeks, share book recommendations and more. Above all, we give each other permission to be ambitious, to change and grow and experiment. We are our own cheerleading squad, and we pool our varied knowledge and experience for the benefit of the group.
Fast-forward 12 months, and the core group of four Novelistas is going strong. We’ve taken the Mslexia Novel School ethos of support and community and never let it end. ‘Through our WhatsApp group, we are a Writing Emergency First Response Unit,’ Sarah explained, ‘collectively solving our quandaries, lamenting our rejections, and celebrating our wins on a daily basis.’
And we’ve already had many, many good days to celebrate. Ninette recently started writing a new novel. She’s self-published a book of poetry and has had great success selling it at book fairs and giving talks. Mel has finished the first draft of her debut novel and is submitting her first short story collection to publishers. Georgie has a new collection of short stories coming out in June (one of her stories was longlisted in the Mslexia Short Story competition!), and she recently spent a month in a Finnish forest, where she churned out a messy first draft of a novel. Sarah has finished another draft of her novel, is working on an essay collection, and is looking for an agent. She’s also been a guest on a podcast, which inspired the Novelistas to start planning our own podcast project.
There is so much on the horizon for the group. We know that when our novels are published, the Novelistas’ names will appear in the acknowledgements along with expressions of immense gratitude – because we’ve done this together.
We are an ambitious and adventurous bunch, looking forward to whatever the future holds. Mslexia’s Novel School not only helped us understand how to write novels, but gave us a group of great, funny, inspirational writer friends to keep us going.
Magical things happen when women get together, and we can't wait to see where our writing journeys will take us next. We’re The Novelistas. We’re good friends, we’ve got each other’s backs, and we’ve never even met.
GEORGINA BRUCE, NINETTE HARTLEY, SARAH MYLES and MEL PIPER aka The Novelistas, attended the 2022 Mslexia Novel School. You can find out about the 2023 Novel School, 10-14 July, here – featuring core craft tutors Claire Hynes, Lesley Glaister, Jane Rogers and Margaret Wilkinson.