Before I actually sat down to write my first novel I had long lamented my dream of becoming a writer. I did what most hopefuls do and thought about it a lot, imagining the very best case scenario of how my writing career might develop out of thin air. Before I had even written a sentence of a novel I had considered the publishing deal, the bestselling hardback, and what it might feel like to have my story optioned by Scorsese, because yes, I thought that whatever I might decide to write when I actually sat down to do it would obviously be that good.
But it was at the time little more than wishful thinking because aside from harbouring the dream to write and occasionally telling friends that I was planning to write a novel when I’d had a few too many shandies, I wasn’t actually doing any writing. What occupied my mind was the Hollywood dream of what it meant to be a writer, ambling about my beach house barefoot in an oversized jumper – think Sharon Stone’s character of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct, only without the murders. Nothing set in reality. So the required leap from not writing at all to the vision of what I thought it meant to be a writer was ridiculous. It was one giant leap too far, because even if I had been writing every day, most writers don’t have that sort of NASA-propelled acceleration to the top of the food chain. In order to write I had to get my head out of the clouds, my ass on a chair, and my feet firmly on the ground.
When I eventually took that step I realised that it was going to take a lot of work to go from a blank screen with a word count of zero, to a fully edited novel that would make it through the first round of agent rejections. It seemed almost insurmountable, and needed a serious level of commitment that I wasn’t sure I had. So I chose to look at it in bite sized chunks rather than as a whole. I only ever thought about the work I had to do each day, rather than the eighty thousand or so words I still had left to find. And I still do that now because it makes life easier. Plus, you soon realise that writing a novel takes a lot of time. How much is up to you. Perhaps you are the kind of writer whose first draft will take less than a month to write, such as Rebus author Ian Rankin who is fueled by solitude and coffee. Maybe you benefit from a slower process, embarking on the kind of project that spans a few years, where the completion of the draft requires time for life and contemplation. It doesn’t really matter what you need or how long it takes. The only important decision at this stage is to sit down and do it.
When I first took the leap from post-it note scribbler walking the corridors of a hospital to dedicated hopeful at the computer each night I had no idea what kind of journey I was undertaking. I didn’t know whether or not I would be a fast or slow writer, poetic or snappy, happy or miserable. Most aspiring writers imagine themselves in a certain style or genre, and I was no different – a cross between Stephen King and Alice Sebold perhaps - but the theoretical version of yourself as a writer might be quite different to what translates to the page. I have said before that the first novel I wrote wasn’t up to much, and my idea of editing was up to even less. But still what I produced surprised me. Inspired me even. But nothing about that mattered; not how long or took, how bad it was, nor the style. Because what shifted when I decided to sit down that first night in front of my computer instead of the television was my mindset. It was that change in my attitude that would take me from a person who finished reading a book to a person who finished writing one. The decision to stop hesitating, the decision to take the risk, and more importantly than anything else the decision to take my writing seriously was the step that drove me into the career which I now love.
I had long dreamed of writing as a job, of getting to do it every day, with or without the beach house. I was never very sure about my chosen ‘safe’ career as a scientist, and almost gave it up a number of times. I suppose fear of failure held me back; of failing at being a scientist, and failing at having any clue how to go about doing what I really wanted to do. I had attended a school that was very driven when it came to studying at university, courses that drove students into real jobs. So a writer might have been OK if I had wanted to be a journalist. But novel writer? Perhaps I’d like to be an English teacher instead they suggested. I didn’t.
It’s true that teenage dreams are often over ambitious, and more often still not based in any reality recognisable to others. I thought my dream of being a writer was a bit of a joke, so pretty much kept it to myself. People don’t take unlikely dreams seriously, enjoy scoffing at them and the perceived naivety of those people who dare to wish for something more. But that’s OK. Because once you’ve grown you don’t need anybody else to take your dreams seriously on your behalf. You only need to take them seriously yourself in order to make them a reality.
I never used to mind catching a cold or a tummy bug before motherhood, quite liked it in fact. Admittedly in the acute phase there’s little merit in it, but I used to enjoy the requisite down-days at home, especially once I was on the mend. It’s the Hygge factor; sloppy clothes and warm blankets, tea with honey, and homemade chicken soup delivered in a basket by my mother-in-law. For me there was also the added benefit of time for writing when I would have ordinarily been at work. But when you get sick as a parent, especially if your baby succumbs as well, the story becomes something altogether different. Any positives that once existed get thrown out along with the mounds of snotty tissues.
And that’s what happened the week leading up to Christmas. I picked up the kind of cold that turns your legs to jelly, tires you out, and takes out only one of your nostrils; all in all nothing special. It could have been a lot worse. But my symptoms coupled together with a sick baby who has lost the ability to both eat and sleep, that minor cold became something insurmountable. My relaxed days with a laptop on my knees and food deliveries at my door morphed into six wake-ups a night, starting the day at 5 a.m., with no option to just to sit back and let the microbes do their worst. The whole experience makes me dread the day when I actually get properly sick. Something like tonsillitis. I had to dig deep while I fought nothing more than a little bug.
Holding it together in order to meet the demands of a challenge, be it making it to the end of a difficult day of motherhood, or something requiring deeper reserves like finishing a novel, there is undoubtedly a certain comfort in the satisfaction of a completed task. And earlier on this evening I read an article about a ninety six year old man who had just published his second novel. It had taken him until his ninth decade of life before he managed to fulfill his dream. It’s the kind of story that makes me glad I do what I do, and that I decided to chase my ambitions when I was young. Getting published was the top item on my to-do list, and the loftiest of all my professional aspirations. But getting there took great perseverance, considerably more than was required to get through a few sick days with a baby.
The first time I tried to get an agent I was twenty seven. I had just completed my first full length manuscript and I was feeling pretty hyped about it. Not many people could produce a finished book, right? At least that’s what I thought, that it was a massive achievement, and that when I packaged it off to a handful of not-so-carefully selected agents with red string binding no less, I was so sure I would get an offer of representation. I had the naive certainty that most agents were just waiting around for manuscripts like mine to drop onto their desk. Maybe there would even be a fight for it. How wrong was I?
Because that first manuscript wasn’t all that good, and no agent in existence wanted to represent it. But during the writing process I had no idea that what I was producing wasn’t good enough. And in hindsight I’m glad that I didn’t, because if I had realised I might not have made it through to the end. Imagine setting out on the journey to write a book for close to a year, knowing at the beginning that you weren’t going to succeed in finding it a home. You need a degree of blind self-certainty to write a book for the intention of publication, to dedicate over 800 hours to the creation of something that nobody has even asked for. But if that first book isn’t picked up by an agent you have no option but to start book two from a different perspective. You can no longer blind yourself that the book you are setting out to write will be the one that’s get’s you a deal. Instead you have to fall back on the hopes and dreams that drove you to start writing in the first place, and most people know how flimsy a companion hope can be. And in the face of knowing that it might not be the book to get you an agent, you still have to believe that it will be.
Perseverance and self-belief drive you forward. They force you to get better. There’s a famous adage, although I have no idea who coined the phrase initially: a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. And it’s so true. The fact I pay for my mortgage with the words I put onto a page is proof that I have moved from the realms of hopeful hobbyist to professional author, it’s just that it took another seven books before I could do that. Perseverance made that happen, helping me get roughly 1,000,000 words written before I wrote the book that secured me representation and a book deal. But am I any different now to back then?
And the answer is no, not really. Did I get better at my craft? I’d like to think so, but still my first drafts look as horrible as those I wrote eight years ago. So as I string up a new whiteboard and scribble the words ‘book four’ onto it, I still don’t know if it will be a success when it’s finished. In fact I don’t even know if I have a contract for it yet. So my perseverance to write drives me on in the same way it did when I was chasing an agent nine years ago. It will keep me in my chair when everything else is telling me to take a break. And that same perseverance will drive me on tomorrow when I wake up at five in the morning with a stuffy nose and sore throat to see a smiling face staring back at me from the cot next to my bed. Because when something’s worth it, when you really want it, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it a reality.
The post Christmas period has got to be one of the worst times of the year for feeling good about ourselves. The excitement of the festivities is over, our bank balances are a reality we can’t escape, and the world around us seems concerned with how we are going to improve ourselves in the New Year. People ask what our New Year's Resolution is going to be, as if we need to identify our mistakes from the departing year and see what we need to do better in the year ahead. Losing weight is a typical one, and no doubt somewhere out there is a gym offering twelve months membership for the price of six, which if you’re not a gym person to start with is about eleven months longer than you’re realistically going to need.
I’m a fan of Christmas, and love everything about it, but I’m pretty much the Scrooge of New Year. Christmas is all about coming together with people we love, about nurturing relationships with ourselves and others. New Year on the other hand is about accepting that your relationship with yourself needs work, that ultimately there is something about the material of your life that needs to change. Yes, it’s about self improvement, but only by first accepting that the starting point is ultimately one of inadequacy.
While some people might find this a good starting point and look forward to making a change on the first day of the New Year, a smoker for example who wants use it as a springboard to a healthier life, there is a huge pressure about marking one single day as the turning point for change. It renders all other 364 days of the year as somehow less valuable for taking steps towards a positive shift in your life, as if time is infinite and we can afford to waste it. Mae West once said that you only live once, but that once is enough if you live right, and it’s a good rule to live by. Making every day count. Conversely there are also people who put off making resolutions full stop, as if this somehow frees them from the ties of January 1st. But waiting for New Year to make the change we crave, or making the decision to avoid following your dreams on that day, ultimately means giving ourselves permission to delay chasing the life we really want.
When I was younger I used to enjoy giving myself a challenge on January 1st, making changes as we rang in the New Year. Some of the things I promised myself over the years were that I’d give up smoking, that I’d join a gym, and that I’d write my first novel. Giving up smoking on New Year’s Day, a bank holiday spent socialising in the company of other smokers rendered that resolution moot before I even woke up with the hangover from the last night of the previous year. The gym in January is always packed, and I found myself queuing for the treadmill. I haven't enjoyed being in such close proximity to other peoples' sweat since I spent my youth on the edge of a mosh pit. As for writing in January . . . that was more promising, but still my attempts amounted to nothing more than a few chapters of a badly planned psychological thriller that never really got off the ground.
But since then I have given up smoking. I have found an exercise routine that I enjoy because I’ve made it part of my life. I've written nine novels, if you count my self-published work and pending manuscripts. But none of these things happened because of promises I made to myself on New Year’s Eve. Instead, it’s because I made the changes to do the things I wanted because they couldn’t wait. I began working towards them when they were right for me, and when not doing them was no longer an option. They stopped being resolutions, and instead became dreams of a better life – as I saw it - and things I couldn’t live without.
So now as I look back on the year passed I use it as a chance to see not where I’m going wrong or what I need to change, but as a chance to see what I’ve achieved over the last twelve months and take stock of where I’m at with my aims. To be kind to myself and be thankful of what I’ve done and for what I have. And I hope what I find is that there is not some pending wish that I have left hanging. But if there is, I probably don’t want it enough to chase it anyway, so I can give myself a break and stop worrying about it. After all, there’s always next year.