Q&A with editor and novelist Gillian Holmes

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

Gillian Holmes has been an editor for nearly thirty years, working for several major publishing houses such as Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. More recently, she has been a freelance editor, working with many bestselling authors such as Dorothy Koomson, Amanda Prowse and Rosie Goodwin. Writing under the name Ginny Bell, her first novel, The Dover Café at War, was published in 2020, this was followed by The Dover Café on the Front Line in 2021, and The Dover Café Under Fire in 2022. Return to the Dover Café will be out in May 2024. She currently works as an editor at The Novelry.

Q. You are both a professional editor and a published novelist. How does this impact your ability to edit your own material and the relationship you have with your own editor?

Editing your own book is much harder than editing someone else’s because you’re far too close to it, so flaws and problems may not be obvious to you. Having said that, having editing experience definitely helps when it comes to my own work. I don’t think it impacts my relationship with my editor at all, though. It may help it, because I understand where she’s coming from and I know not to take anything personally.

Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a novelist before going into publishing? Or did working with authors make you think, ‘I can do that too’? Did your professional career alter your idea of what being a published author really means?

No! Unlike so many novelists, I never wanted to write! If anything, working with novelists reenforced my belief that I didn’t want to write. It’s a really hard job, beset with so many setbacks and moments of self-doubt. I sort of fell into writing, really. I’d ghost-written a couple of books, and when I was asked to write my own book, I decided that if I didn’t try, I’d always regret it.

Q. When you approach writing a novel what is your process? Do you start by looking at the overall structure and detailed chapter breakdowns, or do you put pen to paper and see where the story goes organically?

When I sat down to write my first book, I needed to choose the time period and the setting first. I write saga, so it needed to be historical. Then I decided where to set it. Next, I came up with the characters and let them loose. Unfortunately, I am a terrible planner! But as I am writing a series, the characters are already fully formed. So I decide whose story will feature and do some research to find some true events that I can set the story around, then I start writing and see where it goes. Each book needs to plant the seeds of the story for the next book as well, so I usually have a vague idea of what I’ll be writing next. This doesn’t always work out though! I’m about to start book five in the series: I know who’ll end up together and I know a couple of things that will happen along the way, but other than that, I’ve got no idea!

Q. In a saturated space such as fiction, how important is it for writers to produce original content, and in your opinion, is this becoming increasingly difficult to do?

No, it’s not increasingly difficult. Human imagination and creativity are boundless, and everyone has a different way of doing things. In music, there are seven basic chords almost all musicians use, yet there is infinite variety. I think it’s the same with fiction. It’s about how the stories are told and the author’s voice. Commercial fiction definitely follows trends and there are reader expectations to meet. But just because a story has similar chords to another, doesn’t mean it will be the same.

Q. For a creative mind that may have thousands of ideas, what is the best way to focus them so that you don’t fall victim to over-engineering the story?

Oh, I wish I had thousands of ideas! Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I think and I think and I read and read, until finally something comes to me. Of course, I know other authors who are teeming with ideas, and to those lucky people, I say, go with the one you love more than the others, the one that keeps returning to you and is making you the most excited. You may have other ideas that seem more commercial, but if you’re not that invested in it, it will show on the page.

Q. In your opinion, what is the most rewarding thing about writing a novel?

Finishing! There is no better weekend than the weekend after you’ve delivered your novel! Writing can be intellectually and emotionally draining, so when you finish, it’s a huge release. I frequently vow that I will never write another book. Then a few weeks with no writing has me casting around for something to do again! I think it can be slightly addictive.

Q. And lastly, an obvious question, but one we always find interesting. What novels have particularly inspired you?

This is a difficult question! I read so many different novels, and I wouldn’t say one more than another inspires me. My favourite author of all time is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I wouldn’t say I’m inspired, so much as in awe. Kate Atkinson is another, but again, I read and weep! Like I said above, every author has their own voice, and that comes from your own experiences and personality, not someone else’s. That said, when I read, I do take note of plot and structure and think about how the author has managed to weave the story together. Some books take my breath away with their cleverness – for example Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. How did he do that?! Others, not so much. Every book can teach a writer something, even if it’s how not to do it!

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.