This week I haven’t been running at all. I keep telling myself that I have too much work on, but the truth is I have the same amount of work as I did the week before, and I managed to get out four times then. I feel 100% better when I’m running regularly, and yet somehow I still slip into these periods of abstention when I don’t make the effort. Sometimes putting on a pair of trainers and shorts, especially now it is at least 30 degrees by the time I drop my daughter off at school, is just one hurdle too far.
It was the same when I first started writing. I really wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t seem to get past the first few notes of a story before deciding it was a bad idea. In the hospital where I worked as a trainee physiologist there were several blocks that housed the different departments, all of which were connected via a set of underground tunnels which had the atmosphere of an old spooky asylum. Trundling along those corridors with the sounds of the air filtration system whirling overhead was far from reassuring. Yet I always volunteered for the jobs that took me through these tunnels because the twenty minutes it took me to reach my destination was time during which I could think about books. By the time Friday came around my white tunic pockets were filled with post-it notes of half-shaped ideas formed during those underground trips.
But taking the step of turning one of those ideas into a book took a while longer to materialise. I knew most of those ideas in my pocket weren’t good enough, and some of them might well have been outright plagiarism for which I would have been served with a lawsuit along the lines of King vs Adams. But I persevered until I came upon an idea I thought would stick. After that, I sat down and began to write. Six months later I had a book. But what was it that made the difference? What behaviours that helped me then could be applied to my occasional aversion to running, and get me up of my backside?
Hurdles are something we must all overcome in some form throughout our lives, be it professional or personal. If you are working on becoming an author and sometimes need a boost in motivation, here are a few things that helped me take the step from hopeful scribbler to working writer.
Believe that you are a writer and you are
When it comes to my running, I always think of the reasons I avoid it, namely the injuries I’ve had in the past and the outside temperature that Cyprus is currently baking in. I tell myself that my shin splints will kick in, or that I’ll sprain my ankle again. But the truth is that this is all nonsense. If I just believed I was a runner, I’d be out.
If you want to be a writer, the first thing you need to realise is that nobody can tell you that you are a writer. You must believe it for yourself. And besides the initial boost it will give you, the representation of an agent or a publisher won’t make a scrap of difference to your inherent self-belief. Tell yourself you are a writer, and you are one.
Set a routine
They say it takes thirty days to form a habit, so what if you could give yourself just one month? I took to meditating last year, and now, almost without fail, I practice every day. Where at first it felt awkward to try, now it feels as if I’ve missed something if I don’t manage it. If you could carve out twenty minutes from your day you could probably write 300 words in that time, right? Well 300 words, five times a week is 1500 words. Do that for a year and you have a 78,000 word manuscript. And that’s if you keep up the same pace as day one. My first twenty-minute runs soon shaped up into half an hour, and it only took me a few months before I was heading out for an hour at a time. Would you exchange twenty minutes of your day for a finished book by the same time next year? If so, what are you waiting for?
Overcome the hurdles
I don’t know when it will hit you, but it will. There’ll come the day when you can’t be bothered, when Netflix calls, or when pretty much anything seems better than sitting down with your manuscript. Still happens to me now. It’s a bit like when I first moved to Cyprus. It was a remarkably easy decision and process at first. Sometimes the big things are easier than the small hurdles that crop up when we least expect it. That was what happened to me on the fourteenth night of living here. It all started to feel a bit strange. I got in bed that night and realised that was the longest I had ever been out of England. I wasn’t going home. I reminded myself that Cyprus was where I was living now, that this was my new home, and knuckled down and got on with it.
Push through that first difficulty, and all subsequent hurdles will feel easier to deal with.
The truth is, that if you want to be a professional writer, either with an agent and publisher, or working for yourself as a self-publisher, you must take it as seriously as you take your job. If you only rocked up to work on the days of the week you fancied it, you’d soon find yourself out on your ear. You have a set time to be at work, and if you want to write you need to give yourself the same structure. Maybe a writing group, or a friend can help keep you in check if you can’t do it for yourself. Perhaps an app that counts your words or time. Find what works for you, and stick to it.
Maybe you can’t write every day, but perhaps you can find yourself two sessions a week. Maybe you could listen to one less podcast, or write 1000 words on your commute. Maybe when you eat lunch, you do it while thinking about your next writing session so that when you sit down you are ready to go. If you’re lucky you work for somebody or somewhere with a bonus system, or at least some tea-room benefits. If you hit your writing target, why not give yourself a bonus, too.
Find your community
I like social media in the capacity I use it, but I don’t like all social media. I enjoy writing this blog and interacting with people on Instagram. I like twitter too, especially for things like talking about Game of Thrones with like minded nerds. Facebook not so much. If you want to write, find your community by connecting with like-minded people. This could also help you be more accountable. If you’re like me, you'll feel the pressure of stating your intentions to the public. Get out there and tell people you want to write, and it becomes much easier to do so. There is also a theory that you are a product of the people closest to you in your life, so hang out with writers and immerse yourself in the culture of books, and the benefits will start to wear off on you too.
They say that patience is a virtue, but if so, it’s a virtue that I lack. I’ve always known it, could feel it running through me like a Faultline in the ground. I remember sitting in the interview for my first proper job, the one that was linked to the university place that I really wanted. They asked me, because I’m not a Millennial and it was OK back then, what was my very worst characteristic. I said I had no patience and their eyes widened because I was applying for a job in a hospital that involved the sick, crying children, and the elderly. I tempered their fear by saying that my lack of patience was only with myself. It was at least partly true, and fortunately convincing enough to get me the job.
But I never had any clue back then of just how much patience I would need to find while waiting to secure the most important job I would ever do in my life. I had no idea how difficult it would be to achieve. I truly believed it would be easy to become a mother, despite the fact I knew I would never carry a baby in my womb. Adoption, I thought, was to be taken for granted.
The waiting started right at the beginning of the process. I arrived in a somewhat depressing government issue waiting room, and tentatively, in my best Greek, asked to speak to somebody about adoption. They looked at my abdomen, wondered how long they had. I tried my best to communicate that I was interested in the process from the other perspective, that I had no baby to offer for adoption, and so they sent me away with instructions to write a letter of interest. Three months later, we hadn’t heard anything in response.
Each day after that felt as if it would be the day they would contact us. When they finally did, I was sitting writing My Sister, and John Legend was playing on the radio. We were being invited to our first interview in another two weeks’ time. Never mind, I thought. What’s another fourteen days?
The home study took us nine months. People talk about how intrusive it is, and I suppose it is if you have something to hide or are anxious from the off. But we didn’t and we weren’t. Our social worker explained to us that there might be a long wait at the end of the home study because there weren’t that many children waiting to be adopted in Cyprus. Nonsense, I thought. She was just playing it safe, and didn’t want to get our hopes up too soon. All in due course, I thought.
On the day we went in to get the approval we already knew we had been issued, I kept that advice in mind. Still, even though we’d been told there weren’t that many children waiting it was hard not to get excited. I’d cleaned our bedroom, checked prices for Ikea furniture, and cleared my work schedule. I sat in the chair and waited for the good news. When it didn’t come and it became obvious that the meeting was wrapping up I asked her, so what do we do now? She shrugged, suggested we look abroad, and be prepared to wait.
We waited for two years. During that time, we received one phone call from social services to invite us for another meeting. When we arrived we waited in another miserable corridor on hot plastic seats, dressed in clothes too smart for the weather. Inside they regurgitated the same advice, asked us the same questions. Just an update. When we left that meeting we realised there were two other couples waiting for the same interview. Never had things looked so bleak to me. And I began to wonder whether motherhood was something that would happen for me at all. I pushed the thought aside, tried not to give it space to grow.
Then somebody contacted us regarding a private adoption. The biological mum was eight months pregnant and we had been chosen to adopt the baby she thought she couldn’t care for. We got excited again, made provisional plans, then spoke to our social worker to get the ball rolling. But three weeks later she changed her mind, kept the baby. We decided to look abroad, and began an application to adopt from Armenia. The cultures were similar we told ourselves. We could parent a child with Armenian roots. We translated documents and witness testimonies in a script we couldn’t understand, and met a wonderful Armenian lady who offered to help us when we were in country. We sent off the paperwork and began to hope. We were still waiting but we felt in control. We were blindsided during that time when my dad got sick, and we had to put things on hold. After my dad’s passing I found it hard to think about moving forward with the adoption, and we took a couple of months to regroup before starting the paperwork trail again when the authorities in Armenia requested more information. This time it was slow, the translations even slower. Finally, in May 2017 we sent them off. I hoped we were close, but that voice inside that told me it might not happen was gaining ground. I told myself that I might have to accept that we would never get to be parents together. It was the first time I had ever allowed the thought to take space in my mind, and it was the hardest idea to conceive. But three weeks later we got news of a baby in Cyprus who might need us.
Without any more information, I knew. Maybe it was naivety, maybe desperation, or maybe something altogether wonderful like fate. But I had a feeling. I knew without being told that the baby was a girl, and I knew, really knew beyond doubt, that she was mine. So I went home, cleaned the spare room. I couldn’t clear my work schedule this time, but I didn’t care. I cancelled a trip to Harrogate festival just in case. I was convinced. That girl was ours, and she was coming home.
I called the social workers every day trying to convince them. They told me that nothing had been decided, that they didn’t even know if she would be available to be adopted. So I begged to register as a foster parent, told the social worker that she needed a family, that if she wasn’t ready to leave hospital they had to let me go to her instead. I told my husband that this time it wasn’t about us. I told him I was prepared to give her a home, even if it wasn’t to stay. I was lucky he felt the same and we signed the forms to foster and continued to hope.
It’s two years ago next month that we first heard about our daughter. It’s over a year since the adoption was finalised. Today I sat waiting in the dentist’s chair while she had her first ever dental check. All that waiting that at the time seemed so fruitless. But yet we were waiting not for a form to be signed, not for a letter to be read, or for somebody to make a decision; we were waiting for our daughter. If we hadn’t waited all that time we wouldn’t have been ready when our daughter was ready. We had to wait, because when we thought we were ready, we weren’t. Our daughter hadn’t been born yet.
Sometimes waiting feels as if it’s the most pointless waste of time. Finding the patience for it is tough. But waiting, while it might be the hardest thing, is sometimes all you can do. Everything happens in due course.
Eight years ago when I moved to Cyprus, I knew that I was leaving behind a life that I thoroughly loved. I had a great job, supportive colleagues, and a bunch of friends who I relied on. I enjoyed hiking at the weekend and climbing at the local gym. When I could, out on the rocks of the Peak District. From a professional perspective I knew it was going to be hard to move to Cyprus, but I was prepared to give it a try.
When I arrived in Cyprus, I decided something for myself as I went forward; that I wouldn’t try to recreate the life I had in England in a new place that I knew nothing about. I knew that climbing, the hobby that I loved, was out of the question; honestly, where was I going to find a new person whom I trusted to hold the rope from which my life dangled at the other end? I knew that I would have to accept a period of not having a clue what was going on in everyday conversation until I had made some progress with learning the Greek language. I accepted that I wouldn’t have close friends, at least for a while. These were all things for which I was prepared to compromise. But there was one compromise I wasn’t prepared to make. Although I knew it was going to be difficult to find employment in Cyprus, my job was the only thing that I wasn’t prepared to leave behind. I loved my work, and I valued the contribution I made to our household. For me, working was non-negotiable.
And then I arrived in Cyprus.
The job I thought I had disappeared into the ether before I’d even started, and I spent five months without employment or a salary. I found it almost impossible. Eventually I found a job, not the same job but a job nevertheless. But thanks to the international financial crisis that was a short-lived adventure. Left with little option, and faced with the looming fact of my redundancy, left both myself and my husband with a thought. What if we created something for ourselves?
Being an entrepreneur was never something either of us intended. It’s not exactly the mindset created by working for over ten years in the NHS as we both had. But we duly set up a medical practice, and it was during the down time in this new position when I remembered that I had another dream before I moved that I was no longer pursuing. Writing. The entrepreneurial mindset was already sparked, and that position in which we found ourselves gave me the freedom to believe that just maybe this time I might be able to make it work.
Those early decisions were the foundation for how I managed to pursue the loftiest of my professional ambitions. The worst moment in my career became the seed from which the best could grow. In the UK I always wanted to be a writer, and even wrote my first book while I was working in the NHS. But being in Cyprus allowed me to dedicate time to finding my voice as a writer. I found the time to dedicate to reading and honing my craft until I eventually wrote the book that snagged me an agent and a publishing deal. I learnt what it meant to be entrepreneurial, to decide for myself when and how hard I needed to work, and how to manage that work when I had no boss. And slowly over time, I found friendships with people that supported the idea of working for myself too.
During the time I lived in the UK I’m not sure that I knew anybody who owned their own business. But now once a month I have dinner with two girlfriends, both of whom are entrepreneurs. They are building their own businesses too. The dinner is about three friends getting together and doing whatever friends do when they drink wine and eat good Japanese food. We talk about our life, our homes, and whose kid managed to pee on the potty or slept through the night. But these dinners are also about supporting each other in our ventures. We discuss how things are going, who’s had a success, and maybe who has experienced a failure. We offer each other support and guidance, even though none of us really know the minutiae of each other’s work. We cheer each other on and encourage one another when we need it. These friends mean so much to me, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I’m embarking on a new venture now too, a passion project for which I’m currently doing the necessary training and development. They both offer the words of encouragement I need to move forward.
Eight years ago, I thought the only thing I wasn’t prepared to accept losing in Cyprus was the career I’d worked hard to achieve. As it turns out, now that I no longer have it, I don’t miss it at all. But as for the support of trusted friendships, I wouldn’t want to trade that for anything. Not again.
About two months ago I came up with an idea for a new book. It arrived a bit earlier than was expected or required as I was nowhere near finished with the book I was writing at the time. Usually an idea comes to me as I am working on my final edits, almost as if my conscious and subconscious are working in unison, dishing out a new idea idea when I need to move on. But this time it came in so hard that I almost stopped writing the book I was working on. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to hold off, and got that book wrapped up first.
Ideas for new books come to me in various stages of completion. Some charade as fully formed characters, others as snippets that need a lot of fleshing out. I’ve heard it said before that one good idea does not make a book, but it does usually constitute enough to get me started. Sometimes it’s the overarching plot or a particularly poignant scene that I imagine, maybe even an opening line. In this instance it was an opening line twinned with a reflective closing statement that got me all fired up, which would, I felt, unite the 90,000 words in between. So, a couple of weeks ago when I finally made a start, I couldn’t wait to get writing. As I worked on the idea I came up with a structure, a plot to tell the tale, and as I got the early scenes laid out on paper I thought it was all looking pretty good.
Then two weeks into the writing process, with roughly 14,000 words written, I had what I can only describe as a lightbulb moment. Other creative types will know the sort, and I suspect many others in professions of which I have no understanding will be able to appreciate the concept; a moment when you are so damn sure that you know exactly what you need to do, that you can’t ever imagine the outcome being anything other than perfect. Perhaps for a lawyer it is that breakthrough moment in a case, a final piece of evidence. For a surgeon that moment when she clips the right vessel and the bleeding suddenly stops. It’s that pivotal moment in time when you are sure that what you have just experienced is universal serendipity. For me as a writer it is what looks like the perfect idea, as if we were always meant to find each other and live happily ever after as New York Times bestsellers.
But the trouble with these fancy ideas is that they make your sturdy, stable ideas seem just that little bit less. They make you feel as if to stick with the original plan is playing it safe. Maybe as a surgeon or lawyer that’s a good idea, but let’s face it, somebody in my profession never wants to be accused of that. So, I spent the latter half of Friday morning mulling over my flashy new idea, trying to make it work. And when a couple of hours later I was still convinced it was the best idea I’d ever had I set about restructuring the whole novel. Of course it will work, I told myself. It’s amazing, I thought, certainly enough to tweet about. It was, I was sure, the perfect lightbulb moment. But do such moments ever really exist?
I didn’t work much this weekend, in part because we had a lot going on familywise, but mainly because in order to make my new idea work I had so much reorganisation to do in terms of my plot that I fancied instead just revelling in the idea for a bit longer. But yesterday morning when I came to sit down at my desk to do all that new planning and research, to find ways to incorporate that idea into the new manuscript which was barely out of nappies, I realised I couldn’t make it work. Not without losing everything else I already had. And without everything else, all that I had left was a flashy idea, and without the groundwork to hold it up, it didn’t even look that tempting anymore. I was left with a twist, and that on its own is nothing. What value is a novel concept, if it comes without substance? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not worth very much at all.
So yesterday I spent the best part of three hours doing not all that much in terms of writing. I had to work through the idea, test it from every possible angle in order to see it for what it was; a distraction. It was a major disappointment. But this time was necessary because it was what I needed to understand that what I had already planned really was the book that I wanted to write all along. The other, newer idea, was just a blip in the road. I’m sitting back at my desk now feeling much more comfortable that I’ve worked it through, with the knowledge that my new idea isn’t going to work. And in doing so I see the merits of what I have already done.
Changing focus during the writing of a first draft is always part of the course. This is my eleventh manuscript to date, and I feel like I have learnt quite a lot during that writing time, about what it means to see an idea through, and perhaps what it means to leave an idea behind. In my first books I took whatever idea I had and ran with it. This new idea would have without doubt ended up as a full-length novel. There was little planning to my work at that stage, and I would romp through whatever first draft came to mind and celebrate the completion of 80,000 words irrespective of what they were or what story they wished to tell. But writing isn’t about a word count. It’s about carefully manipulating an idea into a story that has meaning. A novel isn’t about a twist. Just like in real life, the moments that really count are never the extravagant gestures or carefully planned surprises. It’s the quiet interactions between people who care for one another that matter, the simple experiences shared between loved ones. When people look back at their lives it’s not the wedding they remember, but the acts of love and support that create the map of a shared life together that are cherished. The big moments are the foundations, but it’s the everyday experiences that help paint the picture of that life.
Moving from one idea to the next and trying to make things work in fiction never gets us very far. Working on something until it’s good? Now that’s where the true moments of magic are found. Rushing through to the end only leads to disappointment. My new book idea looked for a moment like it was everything I was looking for, but after taking the time to work it through I found myself back on the right track. It was an idea that looked too good to be true. But then again, most things that look that good usually are.
**SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES BELOW**
A long time ago, back before I had a publisher and without the benefit of a proper editor, I wrote a book which I self-published. It was an experimental book, and had an unpopular ending. When I wrote the end to that novel I was certain that it was the right one, and couldn’t imagine it any other way. I also wrote that book during a fairly crazy three month period after suffering a seizure which landed me in ITU. My protagonist was experiencing a hard time with her mental health, and I discovered that an unexpected seizure had the ability to shake the sturdiest of foundations. I struggled to get back to normality after that, and writing that book really helped. I was satisfied with how it turned out, but when the reviews started coming in I realised that a lot of people were not.
That’s the thing as a reader or viewer of fiction; we get invested. We start to have expectations and hopes for our characters. I was late to the Game of Thrones party, picking up season one when season two was just wrapping up. I devoured the first two seasons in one weekend (little shout out there to Life Before Kids) and have spent the last eight years waiting for the seasons to air. To say I’m into it, or that I’m a fan, is kind of an understatement. I’ve read all the books, listened to the audio, and I even have a selection of the T-shirts. There is a video of me watching Battle of the Bastards that I pray my husband never shows to anybody. As a lover of fantasy, I was amazed by the spectacle of the show, the intricate world created, and the mega-complex order of things. As a writer I was in awe of the way both books and show were written, the complexities of the dialogues, and the characters interactions. The foreshadowing and prophecies were inspired. But then this week’s episode left me feeling totally bereft. I was never a champion for Cersei, but her death left me feeling empty and disappointed. Not because she was dead; Cersei was always going to die. But I just didn’t expect her to die like that.
As I plot and write books, creating the character arc is massively important. Who are they, and what journey do they go on? What do they want, and what drives them? Questions such as these were the reason why Theon was and will forever be my favourite Thrones character, because his narrative is the best redemption story I have ever seen play out. It felt fitting, and right, that he should die for the family who raised him, the family for whom he had much to atone.
But poor Cersei.
She was the master of the game, wasn’t she? She was the most conniving and scheming of all the characters. She outsmarted them all, even Littlefinger. She was perhaps the one to fear the most. Never once did I cheer for Cersei throughout the whole time I’ve been watching Thrones, not even when she was locked in a cell for a whole season. I did feel for her when she was paraded through the streets during her walk of shame, but still I couldn’t bring myself to hope for retribution on her behalf. But her ending left me feeling that some how she had been let down, that to survive seven seasons in one of the deadliest worlds ever created, only to die under a pile of rubble was less than she deserved. I wanted her to go down with a fight, not a whimper. I also wanted some prophecies to be fulfilled, but it seems that was not meant to be either.
So, if this didn’t cut it for me, what would have made a good ending? What makes for a great character arc or story overall? I always think the best fiction reflects real life, even that which is set in a fantasy world. In Thrones we might be dealing with dragons and zombies, but the struggles of the characters, their feelings and hopes, the things that drive them on, are all real human emotions. They feel like real people. Their lives feel tangible, and thus we feel invested. We want our characters, whether we root for them or not, to fulfil their destiny. Just as we are told to live our lives well, to enjoy the years we have and reach old age without regret, we want our characters to do the same.
There will always be people who disagree on the endings of some of our favourite fiction. Fans like me will always be disappointed at some point, especially when we care so much. Where many people hated the ending of one of my earlier works, other people loved it. One person I remember even now took the time to write to me after she finished the controversial book. She told me that it made her feel less alone at a time when she was experiencing depression. She told me that the story was like reading her own thoughts, and thanked me for making her aware that she wasn’t the only one to experience such things. Where some people hated the end, the fact that it touched people enough to care about it is the best I can ever hope for as a writer. My job is to take people on a journey, and it’s impossible for everybody to experience or enjoy that journey equally.
I have talked about Thrones with as many people as I can find this week, mulling over the good the bad, the successes and the tears. The regrets, both for character and me as a viewer. Perhaps Cersei’s character arc was completed exactly as it was supposed to be. Perhaps dying with the one she loved was the only thing that she truly hoped for. Perhaps at the end she had no regrets. I hope the writers of Thrones don’t either, just as I don’t over the book I wrote that was badly received. I still feel the ending was right. Just like my characters, I only wish to reach the end of my story and feel like it played out exactly as it should. So far, I think I’m doing OK.
February has been another great month for me with regards to my reading. I set out at the beginning of January to read one book per week. Sometimes I think that will never happen, and other times it seems like a massive underestimation in what I can do. Achieving that usually revolves around my daughter’s sleeping patterns so my reading this month has been up and down. I wake up at six a.m. seven days a week with a plan to read for an hour before the house wakes up. When this happens I knock out a book in a few days. When it doesn’t it might take me two weeks to finish. And for the last two weeks it’s as if my daughter was just waiting to hear the alarm, and has been merrily waking up at the same time.
Not one to be put off, I have decided to read anyway while she is with me. Sometimes it works; I get to keep my book and she gets one of hers. Other times she plays with my Kindle, which is apparently a lot of fun to turn on and off and change the font size. I figure even if I don’t get my reading done, she gets exposed to books as a normal thing in everyday life, so either way is a winner for me.
So without further ado, here’s the rundown of what I’ve been reading this month.
STILL ME by Jojo Moyes.
I have absolutely loved each book in this series. Me Before You remains my favourite but this comes in a very close second. I loved the twists and turns in Lou’s life, and everything about her life in New York seemed so perfect for her journey. I’m really hoping there is another story in this series yet to come because I am not ready to say goodbye to Lou Clark just yet.
LOST FOR WORDS by Stephanie Butland
Stephanie Butland was a new author for me, but she has quite a back catalogue which I will certainly be dipping into in the future. I really enjoyed this book, loved the quirky characters, and their lives which revolved around books. I could really imagine the book shop, and I didn’t see the conclusion coming so there were still some surprises for me at the end.
4321 by Paul Auster
I set off at a great pace with this one but eventually it got the better of me. I got a few hundred pages in, and while it is extremely well written and I think would appeal to many readers, this one wasn’t for me at the present time. I hate it when that happens, I feel like I’m letting not only myself down, but also the writer too. I haven’t given up on this yet because I do think it’s a great story, and such a great premise, but I have for now taken a break. So far, unfinished.
SLEEP by C.L.Taylor
I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book and I am so pleased I did. Absolutely loved it. It is claustrophobic, tightly wound, and I did not see the conclusion coming until near the end so the payoff was huge. If you like reading thrillers like The Ice Twins by S. K. Tremayne, I think you will love this. If you haven't read that, that also comes highly recommended. It’s out on April 4th.
SUMMER AT THE KINDNESS CAFÉ by Victoria Walters
This was my last complete book for February and it did not disappoint. I’m trying to vary genre as I read at the moment to keep the variety going, and this was a lovely uplifting story to follow the dark weavings of the previous book I read. If you love feeling good while you read, then this is the book for you. The characters are loveable, the premise was something we could all learn from, and it just left me with a great big smile on my face. What’s not to like about that?
The stages of writing a novel are many and varied, and some of them are easier than others. Take the final copy edit as an example. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to read my own book and look for typos, as long as I can find the will to tolerate reading my own material for the hundredth time and accept that I won’t find any mistakes, even though they are there. But I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel to be the very first. I have just reached the end of writing the first draft, and at no point during the revision process will it ever be this easy again.
Now that’s not to say that coming up with a worthy idea or manoeuvring my characters around for the duration of 90,000 is a doddle. On top of that, coming up with a decent hook is no mean feat. How many books have I written only to realise after writing the first draft that the hook needs work before it goes to a publisher or agent? Hint; every book I’ve ever written. But there is a certain freedom to be found in the mentality of writing a first draft, for me at least, which I think most writers who do this on a full time basis appreciate. That freedom comes from the knowledge that the first draft is allowed to be really, really shit.
Many writers have talked about writing a first draft, and one of my favourite quotes about this process comes from John Dufresne; The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but get it written. There should be no hesitations or concerns about language or poetic phrasing. Just get the damn thing written. You can edit it pretty later. And so if upon a first reading I find that the first draft is any good, even a little bit good, then I think that is a huge stroke of luck in my favour.
I often think of writing a book as a bit like crossing a torrential, raging river. Writing a first draft is the same as throwing in great big boulders to create stepping stones so that you can just about get from one side to the next without falling in the water and getting swept downstream. There’s nothing glamourous or elegant about it, and the point is simply to get from one side to the other by any means possible while your agent and publisher wait on the bank for a safe crossing to be created. Of course, they are carrying their own tools to help you, much more sophisticated tools that can be used later in the process, but they are still waiting on the other bank while you make that first exploratory journey. They don’t want to get on that crossing or get involved in its engineering until it already looks like a stable path.
So right now the stage I am at is that I’m back on the bank with the whole crew behind me, waiting to test the route I have laid. I’m standing there, looking at what I’ve done, and wondering whether the path is going to hold. This first edit is the hardest, but also the most rewarding period in writing a book. It’s the point when all the major players arrive at their stations, when you move your characters not only from A to B, but give them a purpose and motive behind it. There’s thought, not just from the writer, but from the characters. In real life we all have friends whose behaviour we can predict, whose responses we can anticipate, and creating a book full of characters with the purpose of telling a story is like getting to know new friends. If characters don’t start to think for themselves, ergo, directing the way of the narrative, the chances are they are not yet developed sufficiently to do so; you just don’t know them well enough yet.
I edited my first chapter yesterday and it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. My first draft comes in at just under 90,000, and it wasn’t until I hit 75,000 words that I really had the first lightbulb moment, that thought when I suddenly realised how to link the beginning to the end, and the relevance of all the major events mid-way through. And what is great to realise now is that those early stepping stones I tentatively laid just over a month ago right at the start of my journey serve a very nice purpose. Sometimes it’s necessary for a complete do-over, but this time it would seem that my early chapters, although they need work, serve as a great foundation for what I really want to say.
Although I might have reached the end of what I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel, I am about to commence the hardest. I’ve got my feet back in the water, and I’m praying that the stones I have set in place hold up as I expect them to. So far they look as if they just might.
This year I decided to set myself a challenge when it came to reading books. The truth is, while I like to think I read a lot, there are some weeks that I barely make it through a few chapters. I get easily distracted by life and a month down the line I realise that I haven’t finished a single title. It’s not because I don’t like reading, I love it. Just the general distractions of life like cleaning, family, friends, and yes, TV, end up taking priority. So this year I decided to make reading one of my priorities. I wake early, make myself a coffee, and read for between half an hour to an hour each morning, and am reading each night too. I have set myself the challenge of reading fifty-two books by the end of the year.
For some readers that’s not much. Hell, I just saw a post on Instagram where the person had read twenty-two books in January. With al the will in the world I will never be able to read that much. But when I am focussed on reading I know it keeps me focussed on other areas in my life too. Writing for one. The more I read the greater my word count. That’s a great big tick in reading’s favour. My year really seems to have started out with absolute discipline, hitting my reading target, meditating almost every night, and plus I have just started learning the piano. Whether that will last’s I cannot say, but so far I love it. It’s a great way to take a break from writing instead of eating whatever is in the kitchen just a few steps away. All I need to do is swivel my chair and I can practice my chords.
Now, let’s be clear; I’m no book reviewer. I’ll leave that to the people who know how to do it. I’m just sharing what I read. And it’s been a great month. I’ve really enjoyed these books. And while for the last ten years I have claimed that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is my favourite book, this month has changed that. There’s a new champion. Read on to find out what took the top spot.
First up was THE WISDOM OF SALLY RED SHOES. I read this book with much excitement after loving Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things. This book didn’t disappoint me, and I think readers who enjoyed her first book will also enjoy this story filled with rich, eccentric characters.
Next up was A LITTLE LIFE. I bought this book almost three years ago, after it made the Man Booker shortlist in 2015. I had just met my agent, and a trip to the bookshop was on the cards. That day I flew back to Cyprus with six hardbacks in my bag. I have no idea what the others were, or why this has remained on my shelf for so long, but this book will stay in my heart forever. Never have I cried so many times, never have I thought so much about a book in the hours when I’m not reading it, and never has a book stayed with me in such a way as this one has. My husband even asked me when I was going to be finished with it because I was starting to become withdrawn. I went on a journey, and had a definite book hangover. A beautiful and heart-breaking story I will never forget. My new favourite. I can’t see it ever being replaced. Jude and Willem forever.
Luckily I selected another great book to follow on from that. The next book on my TBR was DARK PINES. This is another that has been on my shelf for a while after being sent the ARC, but it got displaced in the proceedings by the arrival of my beautiful daughter. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to discover the wonderful world Will Dean created. The follow up is RED SNOW, and has just been released. Can’t wait to get my hands on that one, but with postage to Cyprus I think I might have to wait a couple of weeks to slip back into the Nordic world of Tuva Moodyson.
The last book of January was I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. This is, embarrassingly, my first book by Maya Angelou. It is heartfelt, informative, and an education in resilience in the face of discrimination and hardship. A wonderful read.
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Starting a new book is always a great feeling. It is so effortless as you ease into the first chapters, the word count creeping up and up and up, without it often seems, any effort at all. It happens rarely, unless you are the type to start and stop projects, or perhaps if you write short stories. For me it happens once, maybe twice a year, and it is a moment I always relish. Because the truth is that the process of writing this new book will never be easier than it is today.
The beginning is a time characterised by simplicity. The characters are two dimensional, easy going types, who don’t demand too much. I’m not one of those method writers who think of their characters as real people, but I’m also not averse to the odd conversation here and there which starts something along the lines of, ‘But what do you want to do now?’ or an exchange similarly of that nature. So I can move them around like pawns, creating the early landscape of the novel. They never fight back, and nothing ever feels wrong. Right now, whatever I decide is OK. The straightforward nature of a first draft in the earliest stages is, quite frankly, intoxicating.
At this stage it feels entirely possible to crack out close to 3000 words in a couple of hours and feel blissfully confident about what lies ahead. I make mental calculations, presuming a manuscript will be finished within the month, less than that if things go really well. The likelihood of that happening in reality is slim to non-existent, but at this point it feels not only entirely reasonable, but guaranteed. I make these same incorrect assumptions every time.
Writers are as a species, eternal optimists. It’s only possible to sit down and write these early chapters because of it. There are few jobs where one must work for months on end, sometimes under improbably uncomfortable conditions, where your physical and mental health declines and your diet becomes a concentrated mix of toast and cornflakes and coffee, without the promise of ever getting paid or selling a single copy. Perhaps the illusion of self-importance or relevance carries us through, the immovable belief that we are creating something that people will like, that will resonate months or years down the line when it comes to selling it to an editor. But then again it might just be the magic of this first draft, because there really is a certain kind of enchanted wonder as the world grows all around you, until one day you go from a quiet solitary office to spending your days in a world, surrounded by people, histories, and emotions entirely of your own creation. There is always a point in the road, close to completion, where things begin to get easier, but 90% of the journey from this point on is uphill.
So soon enough this sense of wonderment will fade, around the same sort of time as the cornflakes intake grows exponentially. It will get harder. For me it usually hits somewhere between the 20,000 and 30,000 word mark. By my earlier estimations that should be by the end of the week, but it’ll be more likely late February. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy it.
When I set out to write a book, any book, it is always with the intention to get it published. And yet when that happens it always comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s as if I forget all the things in motion, put into place months before, and all the work it took me and other. And then suddenly it sneaks up on me like a good friend in a packed bar; always welcome and momentarily the focus, and yet so surrounded by distractions you can’t really sit down and enjoy the moment for all the surrounding noise.
I should take the time today to appreciate what has happened, this monumental step in my career as a writer. These are the days I work towards. If publication day isn’t the pinnacle, then what is? And the truth about this book, my second tradition title, is that is was a beast that proved difficult to tame. As my acknowledgements claim, it was the first time I was writing to somebody else’s deadline, and under contract, and there was a point where the whole thing got away from me a little. It took a rewrite (a few actually) and a great edit to hone it into a book worthy of publication. I should celebrate that with some quiet time, block out the noise, and reconnect with that old friend I brought into creation close to eighteen months ago.
And yet my to do list is full. I have several other projects on the go, none of which I will mention here for the sake of and deference to superstition. But my morning is full and until those tasks are checked from my list, I will struggle to be able to really focus on the celebration that is publication.
But imagine if life events were the same. Imagine focussing on exam success before you even took the paper. Or celebrating a first wedding anniversary before the proposal was even made. A child’s birth before you knew about the conception. That’s what we do as writers, exist as vehicles of endless forward-facing optimism. It’s a strange existence to privately celebrate and work towards future successes that may never even come to fruition when so many others are focussed on something you have already ticked off the list and scratched from your daily thoughts.
My resolution for 2019 is to be more mindful and exist more in the present. And although that world is overused of late, there is a reason for that. Because the connection to the present is what makes us real, the sensation of being cemented in our here and now. It’s something we all crave and ultimately need. That’s certainly what my daily meditation practice is about, a personal reminder that the world I inhabit for a large proportion of my professional life exists in its current form only in my head. That’s certainly why I keep a diary of goals and daily gratitude mantras that force me, no wrong word, rather that it requests that I look back at the end of each day and be thankful for the small privileges and successes of the sunrise and sunset behind me. In my daily life I don’t want to wait for eighteen months before I realise I am thankful for something. I want to enjoy it as and when it happens. Such small things are worthy of this celebration, even the half an hour in bed in the morning when I get to read uninterrupted, created by sacrificing forty-five minutes sleep. That time block, with a book in one hand and my first cup of coffee in the other, I know will be the first thing I write down on my list of reasons to be thankful tonight.
So, let me take a moment to pause. My second psychological thriller is released in paperback today. Today. Two years of work culminated in this day. I’m going to hold off on the relentless push to move forward and instead enjoy the present after all. Because years ago, when I only dreamed of this, it felt completely unreachable. Now I’m sitting next to twenty copies of my book. That is something worth celebrating.
Right now over on twitter you can win one of two signed copies of Between The Lines. Join me over there are enter to win a signed copy. If you haven't read My Sister I'll even throw a copy of that in too.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
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