For the last couple of years, I’ve looked forward to the publication of The Bookseller magazine each week. In the same way that scientific publications made me feel part of the wider cardiological community when I was working as a physiologist, the publication of a magazine dedicated to the publishing world, creates a sense of being part of the bigger picture. Writing is a lonely, often isolating vocation, and personally doing it so far away from a central hub like London, means that The Bookseller offers an opportunity for insight that is not to be overlooked.
The magazine and articles published on the website provide a snapshot into activity behind the scenes, such as mergers, takeovers, and jobs. But it also represents the wider publishing experience for a writer. Every time I log in it seems there are deals taking place, new six figure pre-empts being offered, and titles celebrating sales in a gazillion territories. Certainly, this idea is supported by figures from The Bookseller issue dated 22nd May 2020. In an article concerning titles moved from summer to autumn publication secondary to the outbreak of Coronavirus, there will be a total of 10,069 new titles released this September. My next book is not due to be published until November 2020, in hardback in the US, where I suspect there will be even more titles fighting for shelf space. But in all honesty, when I saw the UK figures for September, my first thought was that I was glad that my book wasn't one of them. Over ten thousand books in a month. I had no idea there could be so many. Yet, in the same breath, I was already reminding myself that November is unlikely to be that different. So, if this is close to the average number of books being released each month, give or take a bit, how on earth does a book go on to find coverage in the press, garner reviews, or find its way into the hands of readers?
Of course, some big titles will have the weight of a massive publicity campaign behind them, but the sheer volume of new books released each month means that it is impossible to provide such support for all the books that are scheduled for release. Other books will benefit from word of mouth, Goodreads and Netgalley reviews, and perhaps a favourable thematic association with one of the big names. But many books will struggle. Perhaps some these titles are coming from smaller houses, where even the survival of the house itself is at stake. So in an environment where there are so many books stacked against so few places on the bestseller lists, how is it that we are supposed to measure success?
When my first book was released back in 2017, it was as a trade paperback in the UK. I had little idea of what to expect, having never experienced a publishing day before. Back when I was self publishing it was easy to celebrate because there was nobody relying on it but me. I knew the way the market worked on Amazon, and knew not to expect a rush in sales on day one. On my first traditional publishing day I spent the day in a bit of a slump. I lost count of the hours I spent on twitter, thanking people for retweets and positive comments. I watched Amazon rankings until my eyes hurt, refreshing the page, wondering when they would climb. I got flowers from my agent and publisher, and that was nice. But the overall experience was a bit of a let-down. It felt like Christmas day, but one where you wake up with a hangover, where your presents are substandard, and where even though you play the right games and eat the right food, by the end of the day, you’re just sort of pleased it’s all over.
The catalyst for my slump in mood came in the form of an email from my publisher. It was upbeat and full of congratulations, but there was a simple, and clear indication that the sales were not as expected. It wasn’t going to be in Waterstones, and we were waiting for the MMPB for the supermarkets. My sister in law then text me to say she couldn’t find it on her high street either. So, I had a book out, there had been quite a bit of fuss, including some great mentions in magazines, and yet it didn’t seem to have done the most important thing of all; sell. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, as I had no precedent against which to judge it, but I know the sales reported didn’t reach my aspirations. In short, even though nobody said it, and even though the reviews were pretty good, I felt kind of like a failure.
Without much conscious thought on the matter, I had decided that I was going to judge the success of the book like the publishing house did, which is to say by sales figures alone. But I wonder now in that week, just how many books were released. Should I have expected with such naïve certainty that my debut novel would strike a note on the bestseller list? As a writer looking for a long term career, and enough money to live off without having to get another job, selling well is essential. But is it the only metric of success?
It took for the release of the paperback, in both the UK and several foreign territories before I decided that the book wasn’t a failure after all. I received an email from a reader in the Czech Republic which changed the narrative I had been telling myself. She had just read the Czech edition, and contacted me to say that the story was a reflection of her own life. After being abandoned by her mother as a child, they had recently reconnected, and she had found the courage to ask the necessary questions about her past after reading my book. This moment felt much bigger and much more important than a place on a list, at least on a personal level. This very outcome was the inspiration behind writing the book in the first place, knowing that I would soon begin my own journey with adoption not long after the book was published. After this email, although sales mattered, and still matter, this reader's message was a reminder that the stories we write are not sold to our readers for industry accolades and financial compensation alone.
Writers write in order to connect, to share stories and ideas, and promote conversation. In this instance, my book sparked a very important conversation, which I know will always remain a highlight in my career. We write because people need stories, a lot more than any writer needs a position on a chart. Perhaps never more so than now, when we are all so distanced from those we love, stories allow us to share parts of ourselves with people all over the world. They bring us closer together, and help us understand the time in which we live. This is why stories from BAME and LGBT+ writers must also be told by those qualified to tell them, and why barriers to the publishing world for those writers must be brought down.
So, this begs the question that when my next book is released, do I not care about chart success? Don’t be silly, of course I do. May Little Wishes sail into the lofty position of being a chart topping bestseller. Both in the UK and the US, and everywhere else it sells. But now I know well enough not to expect it. To celebrate the launch irrespective of sales. Because now I also appreciate that being read, connecting with the lives of readers, can be just as rewarding as finding a place in the charts.
In just a few short months it will be a decade since I moved to Cyprus. In some ways it doesn’t feel like that long, and in other ways it’s as if the whole word has changed since the day I stepped onto a plane with a one way ticket. In that time, I know I have changed a lot as a person. When somebody asked me before I left what I was going to miss when I left the UK, I didn’t have an answer for them. Not because there weren’t going to be things that I’d miss, but rather because I wasn’t looking at it like that. I was looking forward to a new life, and was happy to try and start again. I didn’t want to try and recreate the life I lived in the UK, in a new country that I knew very little about.
Yet starting again in a new country is always going to be harder than you think or hope it will be. I felt sure that within six months I’d have the language sussed, had no idea that ten years down the line I’d still be asking people what certain words mean. I knew my career would be different, but I never imagined, or would have even dared to dream, by quite how much it would change. This week I have been thinking a lot about fresh starts after deciding to quit on a 75,000 words manuscript. It’s not the first time I’ve done something like this, having previously abandoned another book in the past, and also needing to rewrite Between The Lies, my second thriller, at least four times. Second book hell. But it is the first time I’ve abandoned a work in progress with such certainty.
I knew, all along, that something wasn’t quite right with the book that I had been writing. Six or seven years ago, I would have taken that rather differently. I would have either persevered, and with an 85,000 word manuscript would have declared it ready and defiantly hit the self-publish button, or I would have scrapped it in the belief I was a crappy writer and ploughed head first into another book in yet another genre. Something with aliens, or London in a toxic post-apocalyptic fog. Now though, I recognise a crappy draft as what it is; the road to the book I’m supposed to be writing.
I’ve been writing this particular book for about six to eight months now. When I began, I felt sure I was working along the right lines. I had an idea, something that I thought functioned as a hook, and yet when I started writing it, I couldn’t get it quite right. So, I stopped for a while, took a break for some more planning, and then came back to it. Another 20,000 words later I hit another roadblock, and I started to wonder if it was a sign that something was wrong with my idea. I shelved the project for some thinking time, and went on to write 25.000 words for another idea that I had in mind. I wasn’t sure where I was going with that, but sometimes when I need a break it’s helpful to focus on something else entirely. But ultimately, by starting another book, the only conclusion I could reach was that I wanted to return to the book that I couldn’t make work, even though I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
I started it again, reaching a lofty 75,000 words, which is not all far from the end of a first draft, in theory at least, although I still wasn’t sure as to what end I was writing. Then, by chance, I received my edits for Little Wishes, and from somewhere, no idea where, the idea for the other book came to me. All it took was a new location, one change of plot, and the whole story changed. The beginning felt improved, with greater believability, and the end left me with a lump in my throat. I wrote a synopsis quickly, which for me is always a good sign, and showed it to my harshest critic. That’s my husband, who had disliked everything about the previous book. As I read it aloud, he went quiet. I got a thumbs up, and I knew I should take that as an indication that I was onto the right idea. Finally.
So, this week I’ve been writing the first draft of this new version, lifting material from the earlier draft where I could, and writing new material where needed. New chapters, where I am absolutely in love with what is happening. And it feels as if perhaps now, in what must be draft four or five, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be with it. Another fresh start, with all the baggage from the earlier versions, characters whose lives had never been on the right course, now doing exactly what they are supposed to be, exactly where they were supposed to be doing it. Which, now I come to think of it, feels more than a little bit like me moving to Cyprus.
It’s been quite an unusual four months for me, after volunteering to return to the workplace. By that I don’t mean my writing desk, but rather the kind of workplace where it was essential to be showered, dressed, and out of the house by 8 A.M. For a full time writer used to managing her own time, that level of social commitment was quite a stretch. Yet is was an easy decision to return to work, one I took in order to help my husband, because we/he runs our/his business, a medical practice which we started together eight years ago, and the place from where I wrote all my books save the most recent. Its success is not only important to our family, but important to me. So, when faced with the knowledge that he needed a receptionist at what was going to be a very busy time, and that I was writing a first draft with no particular pressure of a deadline, going back to work was not only a no-brainer, it was the right thing to do.
Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.
The position was the same as I’d fulfilled before, only back then I was also working clinically as a cardiac physiologist. I suggested this time that I'd go back to work solely as a receptionist. My reasons were twofold. In the first instance, I wasn’t sure how effective I’d be clinically, after being out of practice for two years. Could I still perform an ultrasound with the same skill, or program a pacemaker without causing a fatal error? But secondly, and in the interest of full disclosure, I decided that if I was still good at my old job, I didn’t want to become too useful. I didn’t want to make it so I couldn’t retreat to the writing cave when I needed to. Just enough help to keep things running well, but not so much that he couldn’t do it without me. I thought that was the easier option.
How wrong could I have been?
While I was working in the NHS, I relied on having a receptionist. A decent one ensured that my list of patients ran on time, and that I got lunch. Karen, Anita, Debbie; I salute you. And now there I was, trying to keep things running for other people in what had become a very busy clinic. It turns out, I wasn’t all that bad, most of the time. I just about held things together. But let’s be clear. Writing books in comparison is easy. Yes, there’s a lot to do, and a lot of responsibility, but it boils to down this; to write a book, I get the grand total of a whole year, and quite a bit of help. Agents, editors, copy editors. Multiples of each. If you give me one year, with one job to do, I can write you a decent book. Working on reception however, means that I was being pulled in five different directions in as many minutes. I was on the front line, and fuck, it was hard.
Working two jobs is tough. The afternoon, my new writing time, suddenly became way less productive. It didn’t take long before the ability to write anything half decent began to feel agonisingly elusive. Writing isn’t a stable job, and income is often low and unpredictable. It had been a year since I had fulfilled my last contract, and there I was writing not very much, in a new genre without an editor. Writing is the best job in the world for me, but I wasn’t coming up with anything consistent, couldn’t narrow down that one idea. My mind was distracted, and not just by reception and medical stuff, but by my apparent failings as a writer; the last book that I had written which hadn’t yet sold. What an albatross that began to feel like, even though I was really happy with it when I had finished it. Was my temporary foray back into the working world just a run up to jumping back in full time? I was starting to wonder whether it might be.
And then I got the email that all writers are waiting for. My latest book had sold. First in the UK, then Italy. Germany, North America, and Greece, all followed. My fears, as real as they were, turned out to be unfounded. I was a contracted writer again. I knew I would need to get back to writing full time as soon as possible and we started planning my departure from the workplace for a second time. But I found that it wasn’t as easy to step back as I thought it would be. I liked being back, having co-workers, seeing patients. It was nice when people asked me to give an opinion on something clinical, and I found that I could actually remember diagnoses and cardiac dimensions. It seems that reference ranges will be forever imprinted on my brain.
So, after four months visiting a version of my old life, I am now back at my desk, working for myself. Today, I haven’t brushed my hair, and at least fifty percent of my clothes function part time as pyjamas. Does it feel good? Yes, and perhaps a little unreal. I once thought that writing a book, selling it once, was all that I would need to do in order to have a long career working as a writer. Now I realise that’s not the case. I know it’s possible not to have contracts renewed, to write books and have them not sell. But I also know it’s possible to step back into my old job, and do it reasonably well, which makes stepping away from it somehow sweeter still. Because I have been reminded that writing is where my heart lies. I know how it felt to be writing out of contract, not knowing whether I would sell another book to a publishing house, wondering whether my one chance had come and gone. Yet, despite the long road to get here, and the ups and down along the way, later this year my next book will be published. Perhaps in hindsight, it’s not returning to work in our office that is unusual. Instead, the fact that I’m working again as a full-time writer is the most unusual, precious thing of all.
Every so often you receive an opportunity in life to experience something remarkable that you never expected or went out to find. Something like the perfect job when you weren’t looking for a chance in your career, or a great love that comes when you had no intention of making room for another person in your life. But these are the big ones. Other times some of the greatest opportunities come disguised, giving you no indication from the outset that saying yes will give you the chance to experience something great. For me this opportunity came when I was asked to donate a couple of books to a silent auction.
My official author email address is pretty much available anywhere my face appears on the internet, and so I get quite a lot of random emails. Many of them get deleted because they are spam, irrelevant, or perhaps even offensive, but last month when I received a request for a book donation I took it seriously. It struck a chord with me because it was from the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Centre in Philadelphia. I have long held a great interest for learning about the war, something which intensified after taking an Auschwitz tour just over ten years ago, and so the idea of donating to such a cause was appealing to me. I never expected anything from that decision other than the momentary satisfaction that I had donated to something of value. I fired off an email offering some signed copies and thought that would be that.
However, a few days later I received a reply from Jackie, the lady who had first contacted me to ask for the donation, offering to set up an educational Skype meeting with a holocaust survivor. I was taken aback at the chance. I’ve watched hundreds of documentaries, read many more books, but to sit face to face with, and learn from a person who had lived through the holocaust; well that was something else entirely. I very quickly said yes, and we set up a date.
Beforehand Jackie sent me some information about David, the man I was to meet, and the life he lived. Reading it gave me chills, and made me a little anxious about the prospect of meeting him. It felt a little like I would be picking over his life’s details, and I wondered if he would be unimpressed at my relative nativity. To think that a boy who in 1939 when war broke out in Poland, would go on to experience all that he had in the earliest years of his teenage life, left me feeling in some way inferior. So, I did what any writer would do in advance of such a meeting. I read. I read whatever I could about the time period, the camps, and the life experiences there. And although I hoped that I could in some way ready myself to sit and chat with David, my research in no way prepared me for the experience of finally meeting such a remarkable man when he took his seat in front of the camera.
While I felt a little awkward at first, there didn’t seem to be any nerves on his part. He sat down, rested his elbows on the table, and asked me what I wanted to know. And what I went on to realise is that he was at ease because he had done this before; educating a school in South America only a couple of weeks before, and many more before that. In fact, last year he spoke with over 13,000 people, many of whom were school age in a hope to share his experiences. His willingness to share his life’s story gave him an air of comfort in spite of the difficult facts he was sharing, his recollection of which were sharp and faultless, stopping only a handful of times when it seemed to me that a personal detail had struck him that he wasn’t sure he wanted to recall.
I had a list of questions that I wanted answers for before we sat down together, and yet by the end of the conversation I found that I had asked none of them. Instead I found myself quietly listening, not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to push in the wrong direction. I was aware that everything he had to say was as valuable as any answer I was seeking. During the hour and fifteen minutes we spent together we talked about his life, what he experienced, the jobs he had done since, and the fact that he liked my cat when he unexpectedly jumped up onto my desk. In a conversation about the hardest years in Polish history, and undoubtedly the hardest period in his personal life, we found the space to laugh and share humour as two people who perhaps in another place and different circumstances might have gone on to become friends.
As we wrapped up the conversation he joked that normally people only got forty-five minutes, and then offered to send me a signed copy of his book. It is a gift I will always treasure. Then after we said goodbye I sat with my husband to tell him about David’s life. Even an hour later, as I climbed into bed, my thoughts slowly returning to my own life, I found that I couldn’t leave David’s story behind. I kept thinking not only how lucky I was to be able to speak with him as I had, but how lucky I was in general with my life. I found myself thinking that perhaps it was that same luck that had kept David alive during the two years he spent in Auschwitz, or during the 370 mile cattle train journey in the middle of an Austrian winter. When you think of the many millions of people who died, surely luck must come into it somewhere. But not only that, he also left me with another impression. He spoke of many small opportunities throughout the war that in hindsight where much bigger than they seemed at the time. Like the time he was hauled in front on the Commandant of Auschwitz for having a half-eaten sandwich in his drawer. When faced with what could have been certain death he took a chance, summoned all his courage, and demanded to be sent back to work. Some might have said that was foolish at the time. He seemed to recall it as such himself, yet with a smile that suggested he would do the exact same thing again if he found himself facing the same dilemma again. Yet it was taking that chance, along with many others throughout the war, that kept him alive where perhaps to survive was against the odds.
Eight years later David has dedicated much of his time to taking these small opportunities, offering to educate those who would dare to learn about one of the bleakest periods in twentieth century history. He does so in the hope that it, and what happened, will never be forgotten, because he understands that sometimes the smallest opportunities create the biggest impressions. Sitting down to talk with David Tuck will always be one such opportunity for me.
When it comes to expectations vs reality, reality always wins. I have long believed that expectations are the root of all disappointments, and when it comes to motherhood and time management across a busy summer holiday, never has a truer word been spoken. Because the reality vs expectations balance during what I thought was going to be an idyllic few weeks of family bonding, inevitably turned into a countdown to when school started again. And I’m guessing based on the smile my daughter had when we pulled up outside school today, it was true for both of us.
Before I became a mother, I had certain expectations of what a life with a child might entail. Michael McIntyre has a wonderful sketch about this, which basically sums up the way I used to think: it was going to be perfect. My life, post child, was a vision of calm, joyful moments, home-baked food, and long lazy days on the beach. And while I wouldn’t trade the life I have now as a mother for any of the moments before, this season I discovered that when school is out for the summer, sanity and routine go out the window too. Because what I always forgot to factor in when I thought about summer with a child, was that while school stopped for her, work didn’t stop for me.
I like to think of myself pre-motherhood as somebody who was well read in the art of being a parent. Sort of booksmart, but when booksmart is used in a mildly derogatory way; read all the books, yet still had no blinking idea of what was ahead of me. And summer takes everything you think you have learned since becoming a parent and turns it on its head again. I love my usual daily routine, a mix of motherhood, parenting, cooking, running, and reading, but in summer with Leli at home I couldn’t do most of that. I usually like to get up earlier than everybody else in the house, but after a week when we all shared the same room on holiday, the concept of my bed and your bed ceased to exist. Even if I’d been able to have the alarm on because a miracle had kept my daughter in her own bed, I wouldn’t have got up when it went off, because I’d been up six times in the night making that miracle happen.
So, summer became a task in managing my expectations vs reality. My main priority is always to make sure that my daughter is well cared for and looked after, but it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that I still have a to-do list and deadlines that need to be met. And as the first days passed in a stressful blur I began to come to some realisations. And what I found was that there were a few simple strategies that made our days that bit easier on both of us.
The first was having realistic expectations. Before the summer began, I had each day planned, filled with new activities. I thought the busier the better, but what I soon realised was that the days when I had nothing organised were always the easiest. And best. My daughter does not like being rushed about and nudged out of the door according to my time planning. Turns out, neither do I.
After coming to the understanding that my working day no longer existed in its usual form, the guilt that I wasn’t at my desk between the hours of 9 am and 3:30 pm began to fade. There was no way to achieve that with a little one at home. But on the days when she did sleep and I managed to get up early, I worked then, instead of doing what I’d normally do at 5:30 am. I also worked during nap time, and in the evening or the weekends when I had help around. But, what I didn’t do was cram work into every sleeping moment. That is a recipe for burnout, which I tried last year without success.
At the same time as scrapping the normal working day, I also decided to shred my to-do list. There are always more items to do in an average working day than there are hours to do them. And this is especially true when working from home during the summer. I chose only the most important tasks, or even one task for the whole day, and just focussed on that.
But perhaps more useful than any of the tips or tricks that I read about online before the summer began and implemented as summer progressed, was the decision to simply be kind to myself. I stopped stressing about whether she had watched half an hour or an hour of television. My summer holidays as a kid were all about television, and nobody thought it was weird, or that my mum was a bad parent. I stopped worrying about whether there were dried up plums on her dress, or whether she was in bed bang on time. I stopped fretting that potty training was taking too long, and decided that my expectations were the only things driving my motherhood anxiety in that department too. Because while societal expectations of what it means to be a good mother might be a heavy weight to carry, they are perhaps no heavier than those expectations we give ourselves.
After managing to leave my computer at my in laws’ house I decided it wasn’t possible to write a blog post yesterday. But as it'll be another day or so before I get the wayward computer back, I have decided to write this post on my phone as I travel in the back of the car, returning from a trip to Ikea. As usual, although we only went for one thing our car is full, along with some other stuff in our friends’ car too. If you saw my previous post about reclaiming time, and how I was moving towards minimalism, you might wonder what this trip was all about. But two-year-olds don’t understand the concept of owning but a few things, and at that age it is entirely possible to outgrow your bed. Tonight will be the first time that she sleeps somewhere other than a cot. It feels like the right time, mainly because she is trying to climb out on a regular basis, but I am aware that it could be a disaster resulting in no sleep for anybody. Is there a way to avoid potential catastrophe? But more to the point, is there a way to know when the right time really is?
I like to think of myself as an organised person, but the truth is that I'm not really that on top of things. I'm better than I used to be, but regularly let things slide, or the the proverbial ball drop. The one place where I usually manage to keep on track is work. As a newly qualified cardiac physiologist in the NHS too many years ago to mention, in order to not mess up, I carried around a little notepad crammed with what I considered essential knowledge; departmental processes, physiological ranges, and from where I might be able to reorder printer toner. Now that I write books full time the biggest challenge is getting words on paper. I like to be ahead of the game in this respect, and when I delivered my edits for Little Wishes, the rough draft manuscript for Hidden Treasures was already written. But my next project is proving a bit more elusive.
This week I was listening to a podcast with Camille Styles, and one of her messages was that she was working on being a better procrastinator. Sounds counterproductive, right? But her point was that leaving a project unfinished kept it alive in your mind, and therefore amenable to change and improvement. This struck a chord with me, as I have two half-written books on my laptop, both seemingly excellent ideas when I began writing them. And yet they remain half-finished. The first I let sit when I came up with the idea for Hidden Treasures, sure that it would be a better follow-up to Little Wishes. The second book is what I have been writing up until last week. I thought it was going well but the separation from it during my recent holiday has made me seriously reconsider it as a project since I came back. I'm not sure I care about the plot or characters enough to spend the next year and a half with them, and therefore have taken a break.
I spent last week brainstorming for a new idea, a distinct cross between the two half-written manuscripts. And what I found is that I returned to an idea that has been with me in some shape or form for as long as I've been writing. But I also know that unless I give myself some room to work on it before actually beginning the process of writing, I'm never going to know whether it's a good idea or not. I've written the first half of two books and they aren’t right, so this time I'm going to sit back and let my thoughts marinate for a while before I commit to writing. For a while I'm going to practice being a better procrastinator and hope that helps me work through the issues.
Whether my new idea is the right idea, I don't know. But I know that if I don't try writing this new book, I will regret it. So, with that in mind, as I pull up outside home and get set to unload the boxes with a new bed inside, I'm preparing for a disrupted night ahead. Sometimes a period of being unsettled, allowing patience to pave the route at its own pace, is necessary. Sometimes, just like with the bed, you have to give in to the process. Will she sleep? Will she stay in the bed at all? Will my new book be the right book? I have no answer to any of these questions, but unless I take a chance on what I think is right, I'll just never know.
I’m always looking for ways to improve my productivity and concentration, and right now I’m working on the implementation of a daily morning routine. It’s born from some degree of necessity, because what I used to like to do after taking my daughter to school is no longer possible. To go for a run in Cyprus at 8 AM in the summer is just too hot and humid. So, despite being less than certain about my ability to stick to it, I started setting my alarm and getting up early.
While I never would have described myself as a morning person before the change in seasons forced my hand, I found I quite liked the reality of getting up before most of the world was awake. There’s a certain peace to be found from being productive when other people are sleeping, at least in my part of the world. I love following Rachael Hollis on her various social platforms, and she always insists we are made for more. I always could get on board with that idea, but felt somewhat certain that I was not made for mornings. But since I’ve been getting up early and running on the regular, I find the idea of getting out of bed is not only no longer a chore, but that I even started waking up without my alarm.
Whether it is a coincidence, or the possibility that my radar has been tuned into the idea of early rising, but since I started this practice I’ve realised that there is some sort of movement towards early rising in the wider population as a tool for improving success. During my recent holiday a friend’s poolside reading was The 5AM Club by leadership expert Robin Sharma, who ‘introduced the concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity’. That’s no small promise for a 5 AM wake up call. The concept is that you get up early, dedicate an hour to exercise, goal setting, and reading, and you divide your time into twenty-minute time blocks for each activity. If you head over to Robin Sharma’s home page you are instantly reminded that ‘winning starts at the beginning.’ Now if it’s true, that all my dreams are achievable on the other side of an early morning wake up call, you can count me in for running to the tune of the dawn chorus every single day for the rest of my life.
In truth, the holiday I recently took in Rhodes has quite a lot to answer for. Not only did I come back with renewed enthusiasm for following a minimalist lifestyle, but now I’m also planning to start waking up at 5 AM. I did plan to start as soon as I got back, but a few sleepless nights with my poorly two-year-old put paid to that. But with the start of a new week I set my target for today. I decided not to try to wake up at 5 AM from the get-go, and instead I set my alarm for 5.45 AM. That’s half an hour earlier than my usual time, and it did not feel good. For those first few seconds upon hearing the alarm going off I wanted to take the idea of the 5 AM club and stick it somewhere where the sun was only just beginning to shine. But I powered through, and by 6 AM I was on my yoga mat flexing into what is a far from pretty, downward dog. Twenty minutes later, I was meditating. Next was goal setting and planning my day, and finally I snuck in twenty minutes of reading; a book about how to throw away your things which quite frankly left me feeling a little depressed for the person who wrote it. But by the end of that hour I felt awake, ready for the day, and as if I’d already achieved something important for myself.
Tossing my belongings aside, the rest of my day has been pretty productive, and I have approached it with a level of commitment I don’t often manage to muster. It’s coming up to ten in the evening, and still I’m writing the rough draft of this blog post because that’s what I planned to do. I’ve accepted that I want to shake up my manuscript and have done lots of mental planning. I read another two modules for a diploma I am studying. Besides not getting a key cut, I did everything I wanted to do. All in all, it was a great day, and I haven’t even turned on Netflix.
Do I think I can muster the strength for a 5 AM start in the near future? The truth is that I just don’t know. I like seven hours sleep, and my baby doesn’t go to bed until 8 PM. After that I need to eat, and I often have work left over, be it for writing or cardiology analysis, an ongoing responsibility from my previous life. But perhaps if I can do a few days at 5:45 AM, and then a few days at 5.30 AM, maybe I’ll give the 5 AM club a try. I have visions of myself a bit like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, only less attractive with inferior hair. Either that, or maybe just asleep at my desk. But if it really is the key to success, it has to be worth a try.
I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that each year when it came around my family watched the London Marathon. I’m not sure why we were so keen on it as none of us were that sporty, not at all in fact, but without fail we watched and cheered as people set off, and then again as they crossed the finishing line. I remember, without any real concept of what a marathon was, feeling a sense of wonderment over these people who had been running through the capital, decked out in costumes, looking absolutely shattered as they crossed the finishing line with their arms raised triumphantly in the air. And with the absolute naivety of childhood ambition, and without any clue as to what it might take, I said to myself that one day I would be one of those people.
While I am still to run any kind of marathon, or indeed be anywhere close to being capable of doing so, running has been a part of my life for well over a decade now. From the time I first joined a gym and had my session with the personal trainer I knew that there was only one machine for me. Running, whether it’s outside on the road, or on a treadmill in the gym, is always my exercise of choice. There is something about the structure of a run that lends itself well to my personality, a person who loves competition and yet simultaneously hates to lose. Because with a run, while there is no winning as such, there is also no losing. The battle for the run is fought against oneself, from the moment the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, to the relief of crossing the finish line, whether that’s on The Mall, in Central Park, or through my own front gate. Any competition is found within the mentality I bring to each time I decide to lace up my trainers and head outside. Each corner I turn, each kilometre I track, is a decision in the direction of success. But when it came to hills, that was always a different story.
For years I avoided the hills. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to improve, but because simply I found it really, really hard. After running my set distance only to be faced with a massive incline before the finish was always my worst nightmare. I always needed to prepare myself for it, and if ever I tried a new route and found an unexpected hill, I would often divert for the easier path. But when I moved to my current house, located in a valley and surrounded by hills, in order to run I had little option but to face a hill both at the beginning and at the end of my run.
For a long time I struggled. It was a problem of both mental and physical fitness. Before that I’d schedule my runs along an easy coastline, so I wasn’t conditioned for the challenge. It took weeks before I could ascend the hill that left my house without having to stop. I hated every one of those runs. Surely there had to be a way to make it easier?
Just like anything, running doesn’t become easier by taking a magic pill or by wishing for it before you go to sleep. I only noticed my abilities improving when I committed to getting out at least every other day. But the physical commitment was only one component. My mental state also needed to change.
At first, I faced every run with a sort of resignation. Kind of, here we go again, almost as if somebody was forcing me into it. I looked at the hill as if it was my enemy, and I was setting myself up to fail each and every time. But halfway through a run a few months ago, when faced with an unexpected hill after deciding to push my distance on a new route, I changed my mentality. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and very much happened organically, as if mentally I’d had enough of being beaten before I’d started. A thought rose within me, and it totally changed the game.
There is no hill.
Now, of course, there was a hill, and I wasn’t suddenly in The Matrix. And the hill in question was a beast. But I told myself it wasn’t there, and I nailed it. I was exhausted, felt sick until I got home, but I did it. And the next time I left my house I told myself the same thing, there is no hill, and no lie that run was easier still.
I was thinking about this today because I am facing a challenge like this in my writing. I have 40,000 words of a new manuscript written, and 17,000 of another story that I’d started before that, which I shelved when I wasn’t sure it was right. And now, after another challenging day writing/editing, I feel like this second, 40,000 word manuscript isn’t right either. I feel like I’m writing for the sake of it, not sure whether I believe in the characters or the story. And yet that 17,000 word manuscript that I shelved keeps calling to me. I just read its prologue, and know that ultimately, it’s better. It tells a story that I care about in a way my newer manuscript does not. Yet is it the right genre? Perhaps not. Could it become the story I want to tell? I think perhaps it could.
Right now I feel like I have a huge hill in front of me, and none of my previous experience feels as if it has conditioned me appropriately to tackle it. I know that somewhere in the words I’ve already written there is the story I want to tell, but perhaps right now, neither of those manuscripts are doing just that. But just like when I was training myself for my running, I have to find a way to where it becomes easier. I guess I’ll just have to keep telling myself the same mantra in order to get the job done; this might go on to become my first marathon, but there is absolutely, definitely, no hill.
The idea of mindfulness is something that I consider most days. As a concept it seems to have gained a certain mystical celebrity over the last few years. It takes only a limited exposure to social media to understand that there is a group of people who seem to have achieved a higher state of awareness that we should all be searching for when we are not working or binging on Netflix. But yet, in a life when we all seem to be striving for more, pushing ourselves at work and in the gym, and making sure our Insta feed is as perfect as we wish our lives were, that same enlightened bunch of people are telling us that living with less is the new more. Some of us, myself included, go out of our way to consume this message, voluntarily filling our feed with images of clear surfaces and capsulated wardrobes. The truth is, I am a fully signed up member of the less is more club. Even now as I sit at my desk, I’m looking at the shelves to my left and wondering which books I can get rid of without too much trouble. But if having less stuff is supposed to make us happy, how are we supposed to know what to replace it with once it’s gone?
It’s been a long time since I took what I would call a proper holiday. And by that, I mean a good seven nights in a nice hotel, where somebody cooks a selection of breakfasts and pops in before you sleep to turn down your sheets. Last year, with a small daughter who had a penchant for eating sand, we didn’t take a relaxing holiday. So this year, joined by friends, we checked into a nice place with a decent buffet, sun-loungers a plenty, and a programme for aqua gym with some very enthusiastic entertainers. Beforehand I had that true holiday feeling, that excitement the night before of an impending trip that I had been anticipating for months. Now, sitting at my desk on my first day back at work, I really do feel ready to go. Because on that holiday, without any of life’s daily interruptions, I did find something in that space created once material possessions and daily routine were left behind. When I took this photo, waiting for Leli to wake up in the car, I was parked on a beach with no phone or 4G signal. Not even any WiFi. It was an alien feeling, used as I am to being connected. What was it that I was missing out on for that half an hour? Nothing, not really. It felt good to be there, alone, and totally quiet from the rest of the world. So instead of what I was missing out on, the question should really be, what was it that I found?
My love affair with minimalism has long been a feature in my life. Even before I moved into my first home I was certain that a space without things or door handles was the way I wanted to live. And yet throughout my twenties and soon-to-depart thirties, I lost my way a number of times. Six months, maybe even a year could go by without buying any new clothes, and then I would find myself at the mall in a fug of reaction spending. I’d be lured by sales, gadgets, and essential equipment for activities I was unlikely to stick with. It is almost as if I was uncomfortable in the place I had chosen for myself, uncertain whether a minimalist lifestyle was actually right for me. And these boomerang behaviours occurred in various other parts of my life too, like organising my clothes and cleaning my house as if I was practicing a religion, only for a single object left on the side to begin a decline into a mess that could have got me onto TLC. Reading ten books in a month and then nothing for three. Last year I built a capsule wardrobe, only to spend most of this year spending to replace things I’d thrown out. It seems that although I know what I want, I have never yet quite found the balance. So is that perhaps what I’m supposed to be searching for in the place of things?
Returning from my holiday I would say that balance is the closest way of describing what I feel. I feel realigned with the things I want, my hopes, and plan for the future. With all the things I need to do for work. And so I suppose by definition what I am also saying is that before my holiday I must have felt, if not unbalanced, the absence of it. In fact, a couple of months ago I secured a new book deal, and two foreign rights’ deals, and yet somehow didn’t find the time to celebrate that. I didn’t even write about it on my blog, even though it was what I had been working towards professionally for the best part of twelve months. If there isn’t the time, or space in life to celebrate those sorts of achievements, what is it that I’m doing with my time?
And so, perhaps in all my efforts to be mindful and clutter free, that is what I’m really searching for; not balance as such, but the time to find it. When I look around my house and see piles of stuff, what I see are demands on my time to clear them away and organise them. When I look in my wardrobe and feel overwhelmed by a choice of what to wear, it’s time that I’m losing while I try on ten different things. Time that I could have spent doing something that is important to me. When I don’t manage to celebrate a new book deal, it’s not the will or excitement I’m lacking, but time that has been lost elsewhere, eaten up by a task that I care about less. After my daughter arrived in my life, I used to think she was the reason that I no longer had time for the other things that mattered to me. Although that might have been true in the first instance, because let’s face it, first time parenthood is a task no human is ever truly prepared for, I don’t think it counts as an excuse anymore. I’m the adult, and I make the rules, at least fifty percent of the time. So surely it’s up to me to organise us in a way that makes us both happy and that leaves space for the things we truly enjoy.
As I move forward with the new book deal, and the process of writing another as yet uncontracted manuscript, I’m going to try to remember this idea when I think of what it means to me to be mindful. When all the clutter is gone, what I’m left with is time. And instead of trying to fill this reclaimed time with new things and expansive to-do lists, or load my daughter’s programme up with new activities to keep her entertained, perhaps what I should be doing instead is simply enjoying the time we have together. Surely, minimalist or not, there can be no better way to live my life than that.
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.