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Keep Writing: Advice For Aspiring Novelists, by Stephanie Cowell

I pretty much sold my first novel to a major publisher at a church supper. Well, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but that was the door through which my novel found its way in bookstores across the United States and in Europe.

In my early 40s I turned from singing to writing – my first love – and was determined to write a novel from my heart which someone would publish. I thought it would take a year. I wrote a draft of my first book and got turned down by a major agent who said I didn’t write well enough. I set about revising and began to pass around my drafts in a brown manuscript box to any and all friends who would read it. I joined a writers’ support group of the most amazing women. My sons were supportive of my writing because opera singing had been too noisy. I wrote first on a typewriter, then on the office computer, and finally on my own laptop. I wrote mornings and evenings around my office job. I researched at lunch hour and while riding to work on the subway. More and more friends kept reading, and my support group sent me cards and books, and one day a piece of yellow legal paper with words on it in big script: “Keep writing.” By that time I had been writing for five years and had completed nearly four novels.

A convent of nuns I loved prayed for me and the great writer Madeleine L’Engle became my supporter. She even tried to get her publisher to take a novel, and it was almost published. After a while, I was the closest and most frequent ‘almost’ I knew. Madeleine and the sisters said, “Keep writing.” By that time I had been writing six years.

I did keep writing and passing my manuscript around during church coffee hour (even the priest read it!) Then one night I was leaving church supper when two older women who had loved one of my manuscripts especially hurried up to me and said, “We sat opposite the office manager for W.W. Norton and told him about you.” He came down the steps and said, “I’d like to show your book to my favorite editor.”

A month later I had a two-book contract with the great publisher W.W. Norton for my first two novels, Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician, priest and The Physician of London. Everybody took me out to celebrate but I was too nervous to eat. It was all quite magical: I got wonderful national reviews and my picture in People magazine. My writers’ support group had t-shirts printed with the book cover on them. Madeleine sent me flowers. The magic began then and hasn’t ceased. It is not always a dream (no work is), but the dream parts are amazing.

My advice to all struggling writers is: share your book with everyone. Listen to what people say in response: if three people say the same thing, listen seriously. No one can tell the stories you do in the way you are given to telling them. Keep writing.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

Stephanie Cowell’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Marrying MozartClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     Send Me Safely Back AgainAn Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)A Wrinkle in Time

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. historyweaver #

    Encouraging post. I have 4 boxes with completed manuscripts. I’m still querying AND writing, though I did self-pub one novel – a good choice for that one. I’m waiting for your novel on the Brownings.

    March 22, 2013
  2. Susan #

    Very inspiring – thanks!

    March 22, 2013
  3. I so enjoyed ‘Marrying Mozart”, Stephanie, and look forward to reading more of your books. I have just had a novel about the 17th century composer, Alessandro Stradella, published by a small press after not getting any bites from literary agents – and that happened by a little magic (another novelist, Marina Julia Neary). A variety of roads can lead to a fulfilling life as a writer … but continuing to write with passion and hope and a consciousness for sharing is the essential one to travel, I think.

    March 22, 2013
  4. What a wonderful story and I’m so glad your persistence paid off – truly an inspiration.

    March 23, 2013
  5. Thank you all for your lovely words! Finishing my new novel, I still need courage!

    March 27, 2013

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