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.