Call the Midwife – How Looking for Jonah was born

posted in: Writing | 2
Colour coded index cards showing how i structured Looking for Jonah
Structuring Jonah


Looking for Jonah is a novel that exploded onto the page.


Steeped as I am in the oral tradition everything I know about folk tale and folk song poured out as I began that first draft – the fey fiddler, the changeling, a mother haunted by her lost child…


Since I already had two novels published by Random House, I should have known better. Worse still, I was teaching creative writing for the University of Cambridge ICE, including a two-year Certificate in Creative Writing which was largely about…




Instead of practicing what I preached, I let go the reins and produced a cat’s cradle of a novel.


Don’t get me wrong, there was some good stuff in there, it’s just that any reader other than myself would have had to do a disproportionate amount of work to unearth it.


Simplification was the key. I would transform it into a purely linear narrative with no fancy flashbacks or elaborate nesting scenes.


Easier said than done. Have any of you writers out there tried it? Not so bad if your story takes place over a single summer, but Jonah is a sweeping saga of friendship and loss spanning over two decades.


In the end, I didn’t quite manage it and had to develop a secondary story thread, that of the boy Stephen, running parallel and in a different time zone but ultimately intersecting with the main storyline and providing a catalyst for the denouement.


However, I’m getting ahead of myself because fifty pages in to that rewrite, I moved to Cornwall and Jonah was relegated to a box in the shed. By the time I unearthed it, two years had passed. When I reread my opening, I couldn’t help thinking it was rather good…


That year Penzance Writers’ Café had an event associated with the Litfest and I gave Jonah an airing. The response was amazing. Days afterwards, complete strangers came up to me in the street to say how much they’d enjoyed it.


Then someone on Facebook told me about a ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition being run by literary agents Curtis Brown and a TV breakfast show. The deadline was in a couple of days so I knocked together a synopsis and sent the whole thing off.


It was a shot in the dark and I didn’t expect to hear anything. But I did hear. I was told they’d had over 6,000 entries and although I didn’t make the final, I’d come close, they’d enjoyed it and I was to get back in touch when it was completed.


Cue near-hysterical excitement. Jonah was on his way…


Except that he wasn’t. The problem here, and the lesson learnt, was that the novel was still in a state of structural chaos and the length of time it took me to get it in to shape meant Curtis Brown had long gone off the boil.


The Good Thing is that I did get it restructured and rewritten and now I’ve picked myself up and dusted myself down and am debating where to send it….


If there’s any news, of course I’ll be back here to report. How could I not? In the meantime, it’s back to my 5th century opus (What if Christianity had never taken root in Britain – an alternative history of the British Isles), Queen’s Daughter.


I really hope you’ve enjoyed this post – and if you have, please share by clicking one of the links below 🙂

2 Responses

  1. Vana Mather

    Hello Teresa. I was one of your students on that Cambridge CW course – could it be 15 years ago?! I then produced full drafts of two novels, both safely unpublished, before having a long “rest”. Which I am now trying to break with a new piece of writing – currently very unstructured. Perhaps I should go back to my old Cambridge notes – I’m sure I have them somewhere…

  2. admin

    Hi Vana – how lovely that you’ve found me after all this time! Scarily, it could well be that long ago as I’ve now been away from Cambridge and down here in Cornwall for more than five years. Time does fly….

    People often say that a piece of writing should be put in a drawer for six months so that when we go back to it, we do so with a fresh eye: it’s what I did with Looking for Jonah, so maybe you’ll go back to those ‘safely unpublished’ novels. That said, it sounds a good idea to kick off with something fresh for now. I’d love to know how you progress

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