Sunday, July 06, 2008

Hannah Dennison

I'm so pleased to introduce the Hannah Dennison as our guest blogger this Sunday, and hope that any of you Dear Readers who haven't read her witty and wonderful A Vickie Hill Exclusive will hie yourselves off to the nearest bookstore forthwith.
*****
I first met Donis at The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale and was immediately taken with her warm personality and wry sense of humor. When she invited me to be a guest speaker as the Sunday-slot guest on Typem4murder, my first thought was “how exciting” and my second, “what could I possibly say that was interesting.” But Donis suggested I relay my journey to publication—and it’s certainly been an unconventional one.

One fateful Friday night—henceforth known as The Night of the Cheap Red Wine—I was drowning my sorrows in a bottle of merlot in my haunted (yes, I have seen the ghost), fifteenth century rented cottage in Chailey Green, England. I was a single mum; I’d just lost my job working as a flight attendant on a private jet because the owners decided to sell it; Sarah, my ten-year old daughter—after begging me for months—had gone off to boarding school, and my practically non-existent love life was at an all-time low. I was lonely and depressed.

I wasn’t planning on becoming a novelist. I also wasn’t planning on moving to Los Angeles—the one city in the world I swore I’d never visit, let alone live. But as my dear old mum says, “you never know what’s around the corner.” Perhaps it was just as well I didn’t.

I’d always enjoyed writing diaries and letters and, as a child, had been told I had an “over-active imagination.” This was said in a tone that implied “we might need to get her medicated.” At nineteen, I took a job as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper in southwest England, but I soon got bored of standing at church doors recording the names of all the mourners and then going off to write lively obituaries. I was the official funeral reporter, but what I really craved was adventure.

Instead of joining the circus or running off to sea (though I did spend 5 terrible days in the Royal Navy but that’s another story), I took to the skies and happily served for more than a decade as a flight attendant.

A few months before The Night of The Cheap Red Wine, I’d taken Sarah to California to stay with her Godparents. A friend of theirs was some big shot at New Line Cinema. In passing, he’d said if I ever wanted a job in “Hollywood” to give him a call. At this point I must add that on one of my private flights, I was fortunate enough to meet Steven Spielberg. He is one of the most inspirational people I have ever known and on hearing of my writing aspirations, he told me in no uncertain terms to stop dreaming and get on with it. Another industry friend insisted I HAD to move to Los Angeles if I wanted to be taken seriously because it’s all about networking. This is true in any industry. But I digress…

After finishing the merlot, I remembered the New Line Cinema conversation (hazily) and made a “Drink-and-Dial” call to Los Angeles mumbling a prayer to the Universe that “if being a writer is what is meant for me, then show me a sign!”

To cut a long story short, three weeks later I was on a plane with my two cats and embroiled in a custody battle—though Sarah and all my furniture followed three months later. I got a work permit that suggested I wanted to work in marketing and to this day, I am not sure how that happened. Eventually I got a green card on the strength of my knowledge of the now defunct Pitman Shorthand. I always wondered why it was hammered into my brain whilst working on that rural newspaper. It just goes to show that when one is open and willing, all sorts of miracles can happen—and no experience is ever worthless.

As my first job was receptionist in the marketing department at New Line Cinema, my father couldn’t believe I was moving to the land of “fake tits and freeway shootings” just to answer the telephone. I, too, was filled with fear and doubt. What was I thinking? Dragging my daughter halfway across the world to follow a dream? I longed to run home, but at that time, the quarantine laws in England meant that returning pets had to stay six months at Heathrow airport in tiny cages. Many animals remained traumatized for years. I could never do that to my cats, so I just knuckled down and made the most of it.

I stayed at New Line Cinema for a few years and studied the craft of screenwriting. I became a story analyst and read, literally, hundreds of scripts. I wrote dozens of screenplays and even though I was optioned a few times, nothing was produced. It was a very disillusioning experience. My daughter graduated from High School and went to college in England, whilst I eagerly waited for the introduction of pet passports, and the chance to follow her once I could take my cats home.

I said goodbye to Hollywood and took a job as an executive assistant for the chairman of an advertising agency for what I assumed would be just six months. That was nine years ago! I met my future husband—another completely unexpected surprise—and we were married in 2006. To keep my imagination in check, I also enrolled in the UCLA Writers Program to learn the art of long-form narrative—screenwriting is a completely different discipline. I’m sure no one believes me when I say that I honestly didn’t see publishing as the end result.

At UCLA, I met the wonderful Claire Carmichael, instructor and novelist (who writes as Claire McNab) and under her mentorship, I shaped what started as those vague memories as a funeral reporter a quarter of a century ago into what became A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! I wrote eleven drafts over three years before sending it to an agent. From that first draft, the novel had undergone multiple transformations. I wrote several versions in the third person before Claire said, “I hate to say this dear, but it’s not working.” So I switched to the first person - and you can imagine the work that creates from page one onward. All I wanted was to become a better writer. I learned to take criticism with grace—to take the relevant bits and ignore the rest. Negative comments still hurt.

I took many classes and will continue to do so. I enjoy the camaraderie, support and weekly deadline. After completing a one-year intensive Master Class, I landed an agent immediately. Finding a home for my book was a little more complicated.

After several rejections at major publishing houses, Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin USA) said they’d be “interested” if I “made the following changes.” Please note they said, “interested”—they weren’t offering me a contract. I had to rewrite the plot, make it contemporary and I also had to pitch a storyline for a sequel. It was very hard to take those suggestions with grace! But it was the only offer I had.

The end result was a much improved novel, and I think this experience just goes to show all of us writers that those bona-fide editors who run successful publishing divisions know exactly what they’re talking about. They liked my revised draft so much they offered me a three-book deal. The first, A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE was published in March of 2008. I have already written the second, and now must complete the third by December. Not much time when one juggles a busy and demanding day job as I do. I have also learned the transition to full-time writer without having to supplement income is a process that can take six published books or more, as a novelist develops a following of readers while they prove they’re not a one trick pony. But full-time novelist is certainly my dream and I am well on my way to making that happen.

I would never have guessed in a million years that I would ever live in Los Angeles and be published—or even married again. I guess my mum was right. But for now, I think it’s time for a glass of wine.
*****
Please check out Hannah's web site at http://hannahdennison.com/

4 comments:

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Here's a big YAY for the unexpected and for taking risks and following hunches.

I've truly enjoyed meeting you, Hannah, the couple of times we've hooked up for signings.

Wishing you great succeess in all your endeavors.

sbnative said...

Hannah, I don't know how you do it all. Kudos for sharing your experiences on the path to publication. And I love that you didn't want to crate your cats!

Here in Santa Barbara we ignored fire evacuation orders because we didn't want to crate our three big dogs. Burnin' Down The House' almost became our soundtrack. And once again, I'm writing about fire. So I agree, no experience is ever wasted.

See you in LA!

Sarita Leone said...

What a great post! I really enjoyed reading about your journey.

Rick Blechta said...

Hannah, I enjoyed your post. Thanks very much for contributing!

Rick