Things are certainly looking up for Shirley Benton, she’s just successfully pursued her dream of becoming a writer having signed an exciting three book deal with Poolbeg. Sarah Downey caught up with the debut novelist and found out more about Looking For Leon.
Shirley Benton had always longed to write a book and the real-life search for an old school friend would prove to be the inspiration behind Looking For Leon. “I’d fallen out of touch with her and had no contact details for her whatsoever, but I figured it would be easy enough to find her somewhere on the internet – I was wrong. So I started thinking of other ways I might be able to locate her, and somewhere along the way, I started to wonder if a search for someone would be a good idea for a book.”
The result was Shirley’s debut novel Looking For Leon, just published, which follows sassy journalist Andie Appleton’s quest to find a man she met on holidays, “she knows absolutely nothing about him except his first name and the state he’s from.”
Looking For Leonwasn’t Shirley’s first attempt at getting published, “I had written a woman’s fiction novel and sent it to every single agent and publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and I got absolutely nowhere with it – it cost a fortune on printing and posting.” When it came to Looking For Leon,Shirley decided to do things her own way this time around, and instead of blanketing everyone with her submission, chose her target, matching a list of potential publishers to her book: “I sent my first six chapters to Poolbeg to see what they thought of it. They got back to me and asked to read the rest of it (which wasn’t quite complete at this point but they kindly waited). Then they offered me a three-book deal ,and at that point, I signed with a literary and film agency called Prizeman and Kinsella. So I did things in reverse order of what’s sometimes recommended, but the end result was the same!” .”
Pursuing her writing ambition meant making the tough decision to walk away from a good job in IT, all in the midst of a recession. “It was hard because it made no sense on paper to walk away from a full-time, permanent, pensionable job in a good company in the middle of a recession. But for me, it was definitely a case of ‘If I don’t do this now will I ever do it?’ Shirley was determined to take a leap of faith and write full-time. “I’ve never once regretted it, life is too short to not do the thing you feel most passionately about.”
Her debut novel is based on the search for someone who the main character believes is her sole mate, but how does Shirley come up with her other ideas? “I’ve been lucky so far in that I haven’t had to sit down and consciously go ‘right, I need to thing of idea for a novel today’- I always seem to have ideas lurking around in my head. But the problem is that so do many other writers and it sometimes seems like every other idea I have has already been written.” This means that Shirley always checks online first to see if anything similar is already out there on the market. “It’s not as if your end product would be anything like another author’s- but I still like to at least try to come up with something unique that I don’t feel is already out there in some guise or another.”
As for her research, she believes it’s vitally important when you’re writing about something you don’t know about yourself. “Readers are savvy and will notice straight away if you’ve messed up details. I like to write about places and things I’ve experienced myself to add to the authenticity- for example I’ve been to Las Vegas (where most of Looking For Leon takes place), I stayed in the MGM Grand (where Andie, the heroine, meets Leon) for two weeks and I visited the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon ( both feature in the book).”
Shirley likes to begin by first writing out the concept for her book in blurb format . “This helps me consolidate in my mind what exactly this book is about in a few short paragraphs.” She then does a general outline of the plot of the book- the start, middle and end. “However, I have found that things change so much once I actually start writing. I do think it’s really important to leave yourself open to changing things as you’re writing. Looking For Leon took me down many paths I hadn’t expected it to when I first started writing it.”
Understanding how every character in her book ticks is a must for Shirley. “Even if I can’t fully identify with them, as long as I can comprehend who they are and why they act the way they do, then we’re good with each other.” Is there any similarity between Shirley and the main Character in her book, Andie? “She’s far more of an exhibitionist than I am, for starters! She’s a character that needed to have a very particular type of personality to be able for the demands of the plot and I think she was perfect for the job.”
Shirley is finding writing and motherhood a balancing act, with two young children to care for getting into a routine is almost impossible. “I literally just grab every minute of non-mammy time to tap at my laptop during the day, then I go up to my office in the evening when the baby and my toddler are both asleep and get stuck into working- but this is completely subject to change from one night to the next, as a three month old’s sleeping pattern isn’t always predictable!”
Having finally realised her dream, Shirley is clearly reveling in being a writer, “I’ve already met some amazing people who are so passionate about the book industry, and that’s incredible for me because books have always been such a huge part of my life, and I just ‘get’ their enthusiasm in a way that I never did before while working in other industries. She notes,”I feel like I’m finally in the right career for me, and that feeling is worth any amount of money.”
And Shirley gave her three top tips for success to writing.ie:
1) I would suggest evaluating your entire daily schedule and see where you can find slots to write. You’ll need to make time sacrifices to facilitate your writing, and that’s not always easy. It is doable for everyone, but it does take a bit of planning for most people. Once you’ve found those slots, stick with them. Get selfish with your time and don’t let anyone or anything else invade those designated slots. Of course there will be days when it’s just not possible to stick to a rigid routine, but there are probably plenty of days when you can if you want to.
2) Get connected. Some writers can find that sitting at their desks with just their laptops and fictional characters for company is a lonely business, but it’s a little less so if you have a network of fellow writers on sites such as this one, or even by following other writers on Twitter. I’ve found the writing community in general to be very friendly towards newly published writers like myself and aspiring writers also.
3) I know from experience how harrowing it is to have your work rejected, but if you really want to be published, stick with it and keep believing that it will happen for you someday. Try to shift your focus from getting published to writing for the love of writing, which is presumably why you started writing in the first place. Yes, it’s the hardest time imaginable to get published and all the rest, but try to ride through the storm. In the meantime, think about all you’ll have learnt by the time you do get published. As with everything else in life, it’s usually when you stop thinking about it that it happens!