12 November 2021
Sally Herbert describes her journey from novice writer to publishing The Missing Pieces of Mum
'One day, Mum, I’m going to tell people about your life, the life you had but didn’t deserve, and write a book, and make you famous. Would you like that?'
She could no longer speak and her eyes remained closed, but she gripped my hand with all the strength she had left in her, and the corners of her mouth turned upwards. And then I knew, I just knew that I had to tell her story.
These were the last words that I ever spoke to my mother before she slipped into a coma and died two days later. Little did I know, that one day they would come true, let alone that the first publisher who I sent the story to would accept it! After all, there is so much negativity on the internet for novice writers, that I thought I didn’t stand a chance.
My mother, Phyllis, was born out of wedlock in Dublin, in 1937, and grew up in the harsh existence of a Protestant orphanage. Having always longed to know who her mother was, she thought that by escaping the strict, undermining regime, and moving to England, her life might change, but her loveless childhood predisposed a loveless marriage and soon things started to spiral out of control. Remembering her suffering when I was a child motivated me, in later years, to go on a determined mission, to find the truth about her past, before it was too late.
I had always excelled at writing at school, even being put forward by the teachers for the Sunday Times children’s writing competition, when aged nine. But my dysfunctional homelife had such an impact on me growing up, that by the time I left school at 16, my education had really been affected, and I left with no qualifications to my name.
However, some forty years later, having recently discovered a new-found confidence, I was now zealous to write a memoir about this emotive, true-life story. I had no writing experience, and didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I decided to take myself back to a time in my memory, when I was a six-year-old child and my mother had fled to Ireland, with myself and brother, to escape her abusive marriage. Re-living those traumatic experiences caused me to break down and cry, but made me realise that I could still write. All I needed was some expert guidance on how to improve my writing skills, and put a manuscript together. Six months later in 2017, I joined a local, council-run, autobiographical writing class. It lasted for six sessions, by the end of which, I then asked the creative writing teacher, Helen, whether she would privately mentor me. She explained how I would need a chapter outline and a word count, in order to be able to put the manuscript together. It seemed tough, limiting myself to about 500 words per chapter and knowing what to write in advance, but it worked! After the first draft, I had it critiqued and the feedback was that although it had potential, I had written myself out of the story. I soon realised, that all the most enjoyable memoirs that I had ever read, were ones that were self-effacing and honest. So, after another substantial edit, and a final, third draft, it was now at last ready for a copy edit and proof read.
It’s not easy to get your work recognised, but if I can achieve it, you certainly can. Believe in yourself, that is the most important thing to remember. Ignore all the negativity around you, and read as many books as possible. Write every day. Set yourself goals. I practiced by writing a page in my lunch hour at work, and typing it up at the weekend, to add to my manuscript. Don’t even consider sending it off to a publisher until you are sure it is in the best possible shape it can be. And, as someone once said to me, don’t reach for the sky, reach for the stars, and then maybe your writing dream will come true. I bet it will.
The Missing Pieces of Mum is published by Mardle Books
Are you interested in memoir-writing tips? We've got some from the best - Horatio Clare, author of Heavy Light and Running for the Hills.