Read Escalator 2021/22 winner Shirley Day’s experience on our Escalator Talent Development Programme and publishing in the East of England.
Over a decade ago, I took a chance and applied for the Escalator scheme. Despite not getting through, I continued applying each year. I trained as an actor, so rejection is par for the course. Being perfectly honest, I may have had one year off, but that would be about it. 2021 was the year I made it through. I almost didn’t press the send button but am so glad that I did. It’s been one of the best mentoring schemes I’ve been involved with.
The project that pulled me through was Person of Interest. It’s about Kirstin, a real estate agent with an unorthodox way of acquiring her listings. Kirstin’s best friend works at the morgue. For a small backhander, he tips her off when the best properties get vacated. It’s not illegal, and the pounds are rolling in, until Kirstin’s latest lead gets her tangled in a murder mystery which could see her digging her own grave.
The project was a little different from my previous submissions. It had a touch of fun, and an element of play. I know from experience how tough the competition is, so am grateful to my mentor, Owen Nicholls, for picking my work out of the pile. The Escalator mentors select all the projects themselves. They each have different tastes and interests. This means that all the Escalator works in progress are wildly different—from literary, to magic realism, to historical and biographical.
How do you feel your selection for the Escalator programme has shaped your approach to writing and your writing process now you’ve had a little time to reflect on the process?
I’m really excited that Person of Interest got off the ground and know that without the Escalator scheme the project would never have seen the light of day. Just before I submitted, I’d been writing another novel — a creepy psychological thriller set in the Essex Marshes called Attercoppe. In this Essex story, the central figure was working a scam. But I was finding it difficult to write. I just couldn’t get a hold of what scam the protagonist might be pulling. I’d written a short film script a couple of years previously about a young real estate agent with an unusual way of getting hold of the best properties. I loved the hearse-chasing idea, but the scam didn’t quite fit with the tone of marsh based Attercoppe.
Yet on re-reading my film script about the Estate Agent, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It seemed a straightforward project and I wondered if I could knock the real estate novel off extra quick. It was as I was wondering this that the Escalator call popped up into my inbox. I make it a rule never to argue with serendipity, so got the first two thousand words down in a flash before sending the pages back to NCW. I then forgot all about it; I’d worked hard on the submission but was used to not getting through. A few months later, to my absolute amazement and delight, this was the year that I got selected.
Being selected for Escalator saw me putting my Essex based story Attercoppe on the backburner as I ploughed forward with what would become Person of Interest. I started a daily writing regime because I knew I had to take the scheme seriously. I tried to do five hundred words a day. Part of my writing practice rests on the belief that I need to keep pushing forward. By the time the scheme had finished, I’d written the manuscript. Phew! Twelve months on from my Escalator showcase— Person of Interest has been through a series of major revisions and editors and is due to be published by Bloodhound Books at the end of August 2023.
An upside of the Escalator scheme, one which I hadn’t thought about before, was my Escalator cohort. You’re not going through this process alone. I had nine other Escalator mentees going through the system with me. They were truly amazing, talented, kind, and knowledgeable. One of our team fixed up monthly Zoom get togethers which worked well. Writing long form fiction is a commitment, so it was great to have monthly check-ins with the group, as well as our mentors. I picked up some really useful tips and hacks that I’ve made a weekly part of my writing practice.
I learnt so much from the others, as well as from my mentor Owen and the guest speakers Ellie and the Escalator team hired in to keep us on track. Speakers including the talented, motivated Aki from The Literary Consultancy, Molly Naylor who told us how to present our work publicly, and Escalator winners from previous years.
Your manuscript developed during is due to be published soon by Bloodhound Press, who have already published some of your work. Did Escalator help towards publication at all?
There’s not a doubt in my mind that without the Escalator scheme I wouldn’t have finished Person of Interest. Being a part of Escalator gave me focus, helping me justify concentrating on a single project, as well as putting a little much needed fire under my laptop. I knew I had to finish that novel. It went from being a project that I felt I could knock off quickly to something I needed to take seriously. All in all, the writing took around two years. So not so quick!
Becoming an author is a difficult gig to make work financially. It’s difficult to land an Agent or get a publishing deal. Having been an Escalator mentee is a great badge to put on your CV. Escalator feels like you have people in your court cheering you on. It’s also given me the courage to dip into self-publishing as well as going down the more traditional publishing routes. Escalator is the only scheme of its kind in the country, so it’s a privilege to be involved.
Escalator supports early-career writers from the East of England and often focuses on those who’ve experienced barriers to publication. What are your thoughts around supporting writers in this region; it’s specific opportunities and challenges?
Before writing novels, I worked in film, theatre and short form prose. That might sound grand, but it’s low paid creative work. Often, an exhausting haul from one artistic project to the next. I have lots of talented East Anglian friends working in the same way. All brilliant.
Arts funding is really important in the Eastern region; a region which is not always recognised. My Escalator novel wasn’t set in East Anglia, but I’ve worked on multiple projects inspired by the region, the landscape, and the people. I’m currently working on a second cosy crime — Between the Lines, which was devised during my time as a Suffolk librarian.
I’d like to see more people inspired by, and writing about, East Anglia, the people and way of life.
Funding commitments from businesses and Arts bodies do help recognise that regional artistic practices are valued and that the East has a lot to offer.
What would you say to someone considering an application to Escalator 2023/24?
For anyone thinking of entering the Escalator scheme, I’d say go for it. What have you got to lose? The team are great, really encouraging with lots of tips to help your writing flow. The people you meet will soon become friends. You may feel unsure of your work, even embarrassed about it. That’s all normal. Will you feel a little pushed? I hope so. Will you feel a little swell of pride? Absolutely. Will you gain a bit more confidence in your own work? Yes. So go ahead and press that submit button. Maybe this year will be your year.
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Shirley Day started working life as an actor, swinging shortly after graduation to the writing side of the creative process. She does still sometimes “tread the boards.” Her last commission was a solo show inspired by Kurt Vonnegut for Norwich Fringe during the pandemic. She’s thinking of developing a show from her work-in-progress novel—Between the Lines, but is still sitting on the fence slightly as she secretly finds acting a little terrifying.
Including my Escalator project, three of her novels were published recently through Bloodhound books. She signed contracts for two of them during her Escalator mentorship. As well as publishing through Bloodhound, she also self-publishes and writes for film and theatre. She loves working across all mediums and really enjoys the process of adaptation. In fact, she enjoys it so much that she’s currently studying for a PhD in Adaptation Studies. Along with studying and writing, she works as an Adjunct Professor for three universities—teaching theatre and creative writing.
It’s been quite a journey since her Escalator mentorship, one which she feels she’s still only at the start of. She genuinely feels that this is an exciting time for writers. There are more outlets, more opportunities, more readers than ever before.
In all the work that she does — teaching, editing, writing, studying — shes feel there’s a genuine love of story, a love that Escalator really helped to nurture, and have a little confidence in.
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