Debut author of Yinka Where is Your Huzband, Lizzie Damilola Blackburn, and her editor Katy Loftus at Penguin, dish the dirt on the reality behind the dream of being published.
THE AUTHOR: LIZZIE DAMILOLA BLACKBURN
On 7 July 2020, my phone rang. It was less than twenty-four hours after we had submitted my manuscript to a list of editors, and my agent Nelle Andrew was calling. She told me that Katy Loftus, a publisher at Penguin, wanted to pre-empt my book, and equally excitingly, she wanted to speak to me. I was calm on the call, but after I hung up, I went apeshit. How was this happening to me?
Well, that’s what this column is about. How a 30-year-old, former charity worker from Milton Keynes (but born and bred in London), with absolutely no knowledge of writing, or contacts, or any of the other things you’re told you need, became an author with a two-book deal. I’m going to share with you my journey from that phone call to the moment where Yinka, my main character, gets to take her first steps into the world, in the hope that it might inspire other writers. I hope you will stick along for the ride.
It all began when I found out that the guy I was dating was already in a relationship. I began to write a Wattpad romance to work through my feelings. (Shout out to my 26 fans!) It was called The Planned Affair. (I promise you the story wasn’t inspired by what happened to me at all.) The story was terrible, my writing equally so, but it did reignite my childhood love for writing. When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the children’s author Jacquline Wilson and she inspired me to turn my hand to writing. I have many fond memories of sitting in front of my old, boxy computer writing until it was dinnertime. Anyway, I decided to write something closer to home, and set up a blog called "Christian Dating Dilemmas". Each week, I would publish a short chapter that would end with a dilemma, and the readers (OK, my family and friends) would vote on a solution they wanted me to base the next chapter on. My favourite character was Yinka, a single thirty-something British Nigerian woman desperate to find love. I related to Yinka; I was also feeling the pressure to settle down. However, I had no intention of developing her story further. But all that changed when I met Jackie.
Jackie Ley is an author who I met at a blogging workshop. We exchanged business cards – well, she gave me hers as I didn’t have one—and we kept in touch. Eventually, I did the scary thing that all writers have to do if they want to improve, that is, sharing one’s work for feedback. I sent Jackie a few extracts, and like me, she immediately fell in love with Yinka. And within her helpful, constructive feedback email was this sentence—"I think you should turn Yinka’s story into a novel".
So I did. Well, it wasn’t as easy as that. My novel took four years to complete in the end. I knew nothing about writing a book. I jumped into it blindly like an electrician without any tools. Then I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and the scales fell off my eyes. So do you mean to tell me that there’s an art to storytelling? That I can’t just whack a few scenes together and hope for the best? There was so much about the craft of writing a novel that I needed to learn if I wanted to write anything publishable (you’ll hear more about that in one of my future columns).
I think it’s important to note here that, during the midst of this, I met my now-husband. We met online (where else?) and as the saying goes, he had me at hello. My husband played a huge role in my writing journey. Not only was he the one who would continuously encourage me not to give up, or not to rewrite my first chapter for the eleventh time (did I mention I was a perfectionist?) but he was the one who encouraged me to call myself a writer. To own it. To be it. To live it.
And so I did. Over the next few years, I invested in myself. I attended countless writing workshops (shout out to Spread The Word), did a few online creative writing courses (some free, some not), upped my reading game (thank God for audiobooks!) and I also entered a few writing competitions. Organically, Yinka’s story evolved. She was no longer this one-dimensional character who lived in my head. Suddenly, she had a prayer-warrior-of-a-mum, eccentric aunties and a diverse circle of friends. I knew what she wore—long cardigans. I knew her insecurities—her flat bum (hence the long cardigans). And I knew that like many others who long to find love and settle down, she doubted whether this would ever happen to her.
Yinka’s story was evolving and I was too.
That could only explain why in 2019, I entered The Literary Consultancy’s Pen Factor competition. Run annually at their Writer’s Day event, five shortlisted writers are given the opportunity to pitch their novel to a panel of agents. And yet, I was very hesitant about applying.
“I don’t have an MA in creative writing,” I whined to God after I read the bios of previous winners. “I don’t stand a chance.”
But God tugged at my heart right up until the day before the deadline. And hunched up on the sofa with a hot water bottle to soothe my menstrual pains, I took a leap of faith and applied. And can you believe that not only was I one of the five shortlisted, but I won? Me?! The agents chose my story. And that’s how I met my agent, Nelle. To cut a long story short, she requested a full outline and the first 50 pages of my manuscript before offering me formal representation. I still have the day marked in my calendar.
And that’s when the real work began, because no longer could I faff about wasting precious time editing a sentence. Nelle had signed me on without seeing a full manuscript. I had to finish it. Nelle was amazing; a former author herself, she had a good editorial eye. She really believed in Yinka’s story, and her passion encouraged me to keep going. However, it wasn’t easy. The changes that she was asking me to make meant I had to essentially rewrite the story. My God, it was a painful process. Writing can be emotionally draining, especially when you take a week of annual leave to write and that’s when your creative juices decide to go on holiday too.
Through it all my family, friends and colleagues were super supportive—my mum would often pray for me at her weekly prayer group. All writers need a solid circle of encouraging people cheering them on. But ultimately, it’s you that has to cross the finishing line. I made it there during lockdown, which for obvious reasons was and continues to be a testing time for everyone; but it did give me more time to write. Was it tough? Hell yeah! But the most important thing is, I got there.
Finally Nelle and I were ready to submit to publishers. She drew up a long list—around eighteen publishers— and that’s how I got to that call with Katy. Just as I knew my husband was the one, I knew she was the editor I wanted to work with. In addition to being incredibly easy to chat to, she really understood the mission of the story. Yinka’s story will uplift so many women, so many of whom, wonder whether they are deserving of love. More specifically, it will empower black women who are still lacking in representation in every form in the publishing industry, including the romance genre where readers are still being served the same cookie-cutter characters.
Just when my feet were beginning to touch the ground again, a mere few days later, I found myself in a similar scenario. Only this time, it was an editor from the US who wanted to pre-empt. And not just any editor, but thee Pam Dorman of Pamela Dorman Books. When I looked up her list—Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding—my eyes nearly popped out from my head. Soon after I had a US deal.
As I look back on my journey so far, how do I feel? Grateful. Not just for the two-book deal and my phenomenal editors, but I feel grateful that I gave myself a chance. That I did not give up. So my advice to any aspiring writer: do yourself a favour and ditch the word aspiring. Instead, own it. Be it. Live it. You owe yourself that.
THE EDITOR: KATY LOFTUS
On 7 July 2020, I made the call. I was about to speak to Lizzie Damilola Blackburn, the author of a book I was desperate to publish, and I was so nervous. I had been looking for a love story with a fresh voice for years, and Lizzie had it. I knew it just from her book’s title. Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? The question so many single women get asked in various subtle and less-subtle ways, and here it was as the title of a novel, telling me of its British Nigerian character, hinting at laughs to come, putting me in Yinka’s place. Genius.
I read the book in 24 hours, pausing only for sleep and to gabble hysterically down the phone at Lizzie’s agent Nelle. A contemporary Austen, whip-smart and wise, with a dilemma that hasn’t changed much since Jane put pen to paper: how to find real love when those around you – in Yinka’s case a traditional mother and interfering aunties – think they know how to do it better. I knew this book was going to be popular and I had to move quickly. Fast forward a few hours, and I had persuaded my boss and the rest of my team that Yinka was going to sell a shit-ton of copies, and been told I could offer a corresponding amount of money. All I needed now was to see if Lizzie and I clicked.
Several things were on my mind as I picked up the phone and the fear sweat pricked. One, get across how much you love the book. Two, try to make her like you. Three, don’t do number two in such a way as you come across as a psychopath. Four, a series of anxious thoughts about my whiteness and general publishing elite-ness. I wanted Lizzie to feel like she could be entirely herself, and to convey how much I admired her mission.
Long story short, something must’ve gone right, next thing I knew, Nelle, her agent, called me to say that Lizzie had decided to accept my offer. I ran up and down the stairs hollering and scaring the cat, and then started to plan how I was going to get this extraordinary book into as many reader’s hands as possible.
That was my part in the beginning of Yinka’s story. A bit part. Lizzie’s part is as protagonist, and she’s agreed to share it so that we can lift the lid on this world where words are turned into books. I hope it will help inspire writers who don’t think they can be part of it. Over the next few months we’ll give you exclusive access to the laughter, the tears and the hard work that go into making the book I fell in love with back in July. And in the end, there will be Yinka.