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Herta Feely on Saving Phoebe Murrow

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Fiction

By Herta Feely

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Once my first novel, The Trials of Serra Blue, had received two substantial fellowships—the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and an artist in literature fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities—I figured that finding an agent and publisher couldn’t be far behind. A snap, so to speak. Not so.

I did, indeed, find an agent through one of my husband’s many Washington, DC connections. However, I believe the agent assigned to my novel by the head of the agency wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about it. She offered to send it to five editors at major houses, all of whom turned it down for various reasons, chief among them: “No one’s interested in stories that take place in Peru and Colombia.” (What about One Hundred Years of Solitude and Bel Canto?! I wanted to protest.)

At Bread Loaf, a prestigious writing seminar held each summer, a well-known and highly regarded editor glanced at a magazine in which a chapter of that novel had been published, and recoiled as if bitten by a snake: “I hate first person present tense,” she stated. “My suggestion? Put it on the shelf and write another.” Case closed. Dismissed.

Though outraged by her snub—she hadn’t even bothered to read more than a few sentences, I thought nursing my wounded ego—I also considered that perhaps she knew something I didn’t and followed her advice. Though not entirely. I began a second novel set in Colombia, titled In Search of Che, but got royally stuck about a third of the way through. I couldn’t figure out where this novel was going.

feely-hertaThen in 2008, I read a story about a young teen girl (Megan Meier) who’d been cyber-bullied by a boy named “Josh” and then tragically had hung herself. The fact that Josh was actually the mother of one of Megan’s former friends shocked me. That all this transpired through social media intrigued me. This would be the inspiration for my next novel. At the time, I didn’t even use Facebook or Twitter, or engage in any other form of social media. But then I began to investigate aspects of social media and in 2011 launched into writing the story in earnest.

Before embarking on the actual writing of the novel, I committed to a series of writing exercises, which helped me become acquainted with my characters, the setting, the voices/points-of-view, and plot. Things like: write a character sketch of your protagonist, write the same scene from two characters’ points-of-view, create tension using dialogue, create mood through setting, and so on. This helped enormously. And so did conceiving a plot outline. I would note that for me (and most writers, I believe) an outline is not etched in stone, but rather a series of guideposts that can help the writer move from point A to B. Still, there should be surprises along the way, plot twists that you hadn’t anticipated and the like. As a result of both the exercises and the plotting, the entire first draft took me only about nine months to write.

Of course, that’s only the beginning of the publishing process. Next, as you know, one needs to perfect the story (I highly recommend getting qualified editors to critique your work), find an agent (usually not an easy task), and then a publisher (can be equally difficult).  It’s super important throughout the process to become callused to rejection, but not to the point of rejecting constructive criticism.

On the other side of that process now, I look back and it doesn’t seem quite as rocky of a path as it actually was. Finding an agent can be the result of a bit of luck (being in the right place at the right time), being persistent, and, of course, having a manuscript that’s compelling. To someone. You only need to find that someone who loves it. In my case, a friend and colleague, Emily Williamson, agreed to represent me. We worked closely and finally received offers from several independent presses in the US, and almost simultaneously from Joel Richardson at Twenty7 Books (Bonnier Zaffre) in the UK. I was thrilled beyond belief.

Now I’m on the book tour and promotion end of the process, which is quite demanding but also fun. I’ve visited a number of bookstores in the US, friends are hosting parties for me in various ends of the country, and I’m receiving some unexpected “fan” mail from people who enjoyed the book and are sharing that with me. Very gratifying. Because if nothing else, as a writer and author, we want our readers to enjoy the read! Would love to hear from you about this and anything at all related to writing.

(c) Herta Feely

About Saving Phoebe Murrow


A timeless story of mothers and daughters with a razor-sharp 21st century twist, this heart-wrenching debut for fans of Jodi Picoult, Jane Shemilt and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas will make you question how you and your family spend time online

Isabel Murrow is precariously balancing her career and her family. Hard-working and caring, worried but supportive, all Isobel wants, in a perilous world of bullies and temptations, is to keep her daughter Phoebe safe.

Phoebe has just attempted suicide. She says it is Isabel’s fault.

Saving Phoebe Murrow is a timely tale about an age-old problem – how best to raise our children, and how far to go in keeping them from harm. Set amidst the complicated web of relationships at the school gate, it tells a story of miscommunication and malice, drugs and Facebook, prejudice and revenge.

Saving Phoebe Murrow is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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