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.
As I begin a new year I always liked to make an effort to look back on the previous year, but never resolved to make any New Year’s resolutions. I have always thought them a total waste of time. How many people join a gym in January, only to end up paying a year of subscription fees for no more than a handful of visits? Nope, I didn’t want to be that sucker. I am a long-time subscriber to the Start Now mantra; I believed that if I wanted something badly enough, I’d do it before the first of January of the incoming year.
I don’t know whether it’s age, being a (fairly) new parent, or whether there’s an incoming full moon to which I can attribute blame, but this year I felt differently. As the year was drawing to a close I felt myself wanting to make resolutions for change. It wasn’t that I got anything particularly wrong in 2018, but still I felt there was room for a reset, and the need for some updating when it came to my priorities.
Parenthood, I have learned, is the most humbling of experiences. What you think you need soon becomes a thing open for debate. Take sleep for example. I quite liked it to be honest, but we have fallen somewhat out of love of late, and the truth is I have a daughter whose a pretty good sleeper. What about ‘me time’? The less said about that the better. I don’t even do the unmentionables in private anymore. And as for ego, that literally packs it’s bags and walks out of the door the moment you arrive home with a baby. I do things now that I would never have dreamed I would do as a parent, because yes, I was one of those single people who rolled her eyes at screens on the table during dinner, and often professed that I would never allow my child to eat food in the supermarket before it had been purchased. Now I realise you just do whatever it takes, and we always leave a trail of breadcrumbs as we move through the aisles.
So where do priorities come into all of this, especially for somebody like me working from home. Until September last year I worked when my child slept. It was a challenge now when I look back, and by the time summer arrived I was tired of the daily battle to increase word count or focus on edits. Nursery recreated the working day for me, and that helped me establish a sense of routine again. But still, even though I suddenly had an extra six or seven hours a day at my disposal, somehow, I still always felt as if I was chasing my tail. I couldn’t move forwards because my priorities were all over the place. I didn’t really know what I wanted from my time.
This understanding made me look at my life and want to strip it back. I got excited about the Kon Marie method and promptly delivered 50% of all our household belongings to the charity shop, along with what was probably more like 80% of my wardrobe. They were knee jerk reactions, and the truth is that the capsule wardrobe idea was a failure; a pair of white jeans on a summer holiday in Rome soon brought the reality of that idea into alarming clarity.
In stripping back my life I realised my priorities were less about possessions and clutter and more about values. What did I truly want from my now limited time? I wanted to write. I wanted the time to read. I realised I cared less about a new television series than I did the ability to enjoy reading two books in a week. I wanted to sleep for more than five hours a night, and find the sense of calm that was missing from my daily life. I wanted the time to connect with readers, one of the main reasons why I started writing in the first place.
In the weeks before Christmas I began a programme of meditation. I’m doing it every night, and I really think it helps with being calm and organised, and cope if the day eventually implodes. I started turning off the TV late at night and have since read three books in as many weeks. And on the first of January I began my first New Year’s resolution; keeping a goal-setting and gratitude journal on a daily basis. Sounds like hocus pocus, but I really think he helps me stay on track when it comes to working towards my priorities. And out of the blue today I received the loveliest email which further put everything into perspective. A reader emailed me to say they had read My Sister and that she really connected with the character Irini. She told me that because of reading my book she found the courage to open up to the parents from whom she had once been estranged and had begun asking for answers as to why they had abandoned her when she was a child.
When I set out to write My Sister I was thinking of my own future child that I wished to adopt, hoping to demonstrate that sometimes unthinkable actions like their own abandonment might hide logical explanations for difficult truths. Placing a child for adoption to the outsider seems like the most unthinkable decision in the world, but if the option to keep that child puts them at risk, perhaps seeking a new future for that child is the safest option. This feedback from my reader is more valuable to me than any number of sales; to have connected with somebody in such a way, to help them find a route to move forward and define their priorities in life is the highest of privileges. If I never sold another copy of My Sister again, writing it will now always have been worthwhile.
Realising how I want to spend my time, knowing my own priorities as I step into this new year has become my resolution. I know I want to live more quietly, with less, which will ultimately I believe give me more. I want to focus on work to a greater extent, read with greater immersion, and continue along my path of meditation and reflection. And while these are all things I knew I wanted before the turn of a new year, still I didn’t really begin to seek them out. I realise now that sometimes it takes a trigger, whether that is the turn of a new year or connecting with a character in a book, to know what our real priorities are. When I look back on 2019, I want to know I did everything I could to live my life right. I suppose on some level, that’s all any of us want.