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Chichester creative writer gains award for her Mantelpiece

Creative Writing MA postgraduate Janet Denny is blazing a trail in the brave new world of self-publishing after winning a national award for her memoir: The Man on the Mantelpiece.

Janet’s debut book was picked out from a pile of entries within a competition run by completelynovel.com for conventionally or self-published books in any genre, with the theme of inspirational people or places.

The prize is to be part of The One Big Book Launch at the Free Word Centre in London – an event that provides an opportunity, said Janet, “to meet agents and publishers, hopefully desperate for World War Two books.”

The Man on the Mantelpiece tells the story of what happened when Janet stumbled upon her father’s long-lost diary, begun on the first day of World War Two when he was an ardent 18-year-old pacifist.

After a month, the entries cease until, two years later, when he is a married man, who has volunteered for RAF Bomber Command.

Now Janet has a mystery to solve: why did her father change his mind, and what happened to the man she has known only as the young hero in his photo on the mantelpiece?

Janet Denny

In the twenty-first century, when Jim’s generation is all but gone, she traces her father’s struggle – and finds the reason she never knew him.

Janet said she took the decision to self-publish after a small conventional publisher was enthusiastic about her book, but “kept me on a hook for four months before their marketing department decided they were too busy with WWI books and would I resubmit in five years’ time?”

In the last few years, new technology has transformed the publishing industry – and many new writers are finding new routes into print.

For Janet, there was an extra pressure.

“As I was keen for my elderly mother to see it published,” she said, “I decided to investigate self-publishing. A friend self-published her first book with a company she won't name and shame, but used a recommended firm for her second.

“Reading her books I could certainly see the difference so I went with the second company, SilverWood Books. Their dedicated publishing assistant proved very professional and guided me through the process gently and efficiently.

“They were patient with my indecision about the cover illustration and their advice was correct. It probably wasn’t the cheapest in the business, at £2,100 for 275 pages and a dozen internal photos, and I did pay extra for a copy edit, which I consider essential - but I would use them again.”

Janet began the book as part of her MA dissertation in Creative Writing, and the distinction she earned from her tutor Stephen Mollett encouraged her to go on to complete the book.

She said she was helped enormously by three MA colleagues who have continued to workshop with on a regular basis.

“Some people have asked if writing this book was an emotional experience, she added, “My answer is yes, but the emotion has been excitement at discovering the father I never knew.”

Janet’s route to the MA began when she started writing stories in her head as her family embarked on restoring a derelict fifteenth-century farmhouse in Sussex.

The Man on the Mantelpiece front cover

“While scraping rot from woodworm-eaten timbers and re-pointing old brickwork, I let my imagination fly,” she said.

More tales followed, including scenes of village life and the unexpected adventures of a bed and breakfast hostess.

Later, she was encouraged by tutors on an annual writing holiday to do an MA.

A former nurse at Westminster Hospital, who became a midwife and health visitor and later the manager of a busy retail business, Janet had never taken a first degree – and she said that she was “anxious” about her application.

“Apparently the University of Life and a decent portfolio was enough,” she said, “and, having been accepted, I approached the course with some trepidation. I didn't even know what a module or a workshop meant.

“Sometimes I didn't understand the terms the lecturers used, but I blundered my way through, gradually gaining confidence. My 93-year-old mum was thrilled to see me in a cap and gown.”

She said she was “elated” to have finished the book and win the award, but she refuses to sit on her laurels, and has already begun her next project.

The Man on the Mantelpiece is available from www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk.