They say that patience is a virtue, but if so, it’s a virtue that I lack. I’ve always known it, could feel it running through me like a Faultline in the ground. I remember sitting in the interview for my first proper job, the one that was linked to the university place that I really wanted. They asked me, because I’m not a Millennial and it was OK back then, what was my very worst characteristic. I said I had no patience and their eyes widened because I was applying for a job in a hospital that involved the sick, crying children, and the elderly. I tempered their fear by saying that my lack of patience was only with myself. It was at least partly true, and fortunately convincing enough to get me the job.
But I never had any clue back then of just how much patience I would need to find while waiting to secure the most important job I would ever do in my life. I had no idea how difficult it would be to achieve. I truly believed it would be easy to become a mother, despite the fact I knew I would never carry a baby in my womb. Adoption, I thought, was to be taken for granted.
The waiting started right at the beginning of the process. I arrived in a somewhat depressing government issue waiting room, and tentatively, in my best Greek, asked to speak to somebody about adoption. They looked at my abdomen, wondered how long they had. I tried my best to communicate that I was interested in the process from the other perspective, that I had no baby to offer for adoption, and so they sent me away with instructions to write a letter of interest. Three months later, we hadn’t heard anything in response.
Each day after that felt as if it would be the day they would contact us. When they finally did, I was sitting writing My Sister, and John Legend was playing on the radio. We were being invited to our first interview in another two weeks’ time. Never mind, I thought. What’s another fourteen days?
The home study took us nine months. People talk about how intrusive it is, and I suppose it is if you have something to hide or are anxious from the off. But we didn’t and we weren’t. Our social worker explained to us that there might be a long wait at the end of the home study because there weren’t that many children waiting to be adopted in Cyprus. Nonsense, I thought. She was just playing it safe, and didn’t want to get our hopes up too soon. All in due course, I thought.
On the day we went in to get the approval we already knew we had been issued, I kept that advice in mind. Still, even though we’d been told there weren’t that many children waiting it was hard not to get excited. I’d cleaned our bedroom, checked prices for Ikea furniture, and cleared my work schedule. I sat in the chair and waited for the good news. When it didn’t come and it became obvious that the meeting was wrapping up I asked her, so what do we do now? She shrugged, suggested we look abroad, and be prepared to wait.
We waited for two years. During that time, we received one phone call from social services to invite us for another meeting. When we arrived we waited in another miserable corridor on hot plastic seats, dressed in clothes too smart for the weather. Inside they regurgitated the same advice, asked us the same questions. Just an update. When we left that meeting we realised there were two other couples waiting for the same interview. Never had things looked so bleak to me. And I began to wonder whether motherhood was something that would happen for me at all. I pushed the thought aside, tried not to give it space to grow.
Then somebody contacted us regarding a private adoption. The biological mum was eight months pregnant and we had been chosen to adopt the baby she thought she couldn’t care for. We got excited again, made provisional plans, then spoke to our social worker to get the ball rolling. But three weeks later she changed her mind, kept the baby. We decided to look abroad, and began an application to adopt from Armenia. The cultures were similar we told ourselves. We could parent a child with Armenian roots. We translated documents and witness testimonies in a script we couldn’t understand, and met a wonderful Armenian lady who offered to help us when we were in country. We sent off the paperwork and began to hope. We were still waiting but we felt in control. We were blindsided during that time when my dad got sick, and we had to put things on hold. After my dad’s passing I found it hard to think about moving forward with the adoption, and we took a couple of months to regroup before starting the paperwork trail again when the authorities in Armenia requested more information. This time it was slow, the translations even slower. Finally, in May 2017 we sent them off. I hoped we were close, but that voice inside that told me it might not happen was gaining ground. I told myself that I might have to accept that we would never get to be parents together. It was the first time I had ever allowed the thought to take space in my mind, and it was the hardest idea to conceive. But three weeks later we got news of a baby in Cyprus who might need us.
Without any more information, I knew. Maybe it was naivety, maybe desperation, or maybe something altogether wonderful like fate. But I had a feeling. I knew without being told that the baby was a girl, and I knew, really knew beyond doubt, that she was mine. So I went home, cleaned the spare room. I couldn’t clear my work schedule this time, but I didn’t care. I cancelled a trip to Harrogate festival just in case. I was convinced. That girl was ours, and she was coming home.
I called the social workers every day trying to convince them. They told me that nothing had been decided, that they didn’t even know if she would be available to be adopted. So I begged to register as a foster parent, told the social worker that she needed a family, that if she wasn’t ready to leave hospital they had to let me go to her instead. I told my husband that this time it wasn’t about us. I told him I was prepared to give her a home, even if it wasn’t to stay. I was lucky he felt the same and we signed the forms to foster and continued to hope.
It’s two years ago next month that we first heard about our daughter. It’s over a year since the adoption was finalised. Today I sat waiting in the dentist’s chair while she had her first ever dental check. All that waiting that at the time seemed so fruitless. But yet we were waiting not for a form to be signed, not for a letter to be read, or for somebody to make a decision; we were waiting for our daughter. If we hadn’t waited all that time we wouldn’t have been ready when our daughter was ready. We had to wait, because when we thought we were ready, we weren’t. Our daughter hadn’t been born yet.
Sometimes waiting feels as if it’s the most pointless waste of time. Finding the patience for it is tough. But waiting, while it might be the hardest thing, is sometimes all you can do. Everything happens in due course.
Eight years ago when I moved to Cyprus, I knew that I was leaving behind a life that I thoroughly loved. I had a great job, supportive colleagues, and a bunch of friends who I relied on. I enjoyed hiking at the weekend and climbing at the local gym. When I could, out on the rocks of the Peak District. From a professional perspective I knew it was going to be hard to move to Cyprus, but I was prepared to give it a try.
When I arrived in Cyprus, I decided something for myself as I went forward; that I wouldn’t try to recreate the life I had in England in a new place that I knew nothing about. I knew that climbing, the hobby that I loved, was out of the question; honestly, where was I going to find a new person whom I trusted to hold the rope from which my life dangled at the other end? I knew that I would have to accept a period of not having a clue what was going on in everyday conversation until I had made some progress with learning the Greek language. I accepted that I wouldn’t have close friends, at least for a while. These were all things for which I was prepared to compromise. But there was one compromise I wasn’t prepared to make. Although I knew it was going to be difficult to find employment in Cyprus, my job was the only thing that I wasn’t prepared to leave behind. I loved my work, and I valued the contribution I made to our household. For me, working was non-negotiable.
And then I arrived in Cyprus.
The job I thought I had disappeared into the ether before I’d even started, and I spent five months without employment or a salary. I found it almost impossible. Eventually I found a job, not the same job but a job nevertheless. But thanks to the international financial crisis that was a short-lived adventure. Left with little option, and faced with the looming fact of my redundancy, left both myself and my husband with a thought. What if we created something for ourselves?
Being an entrepreneur was never something either of us intended. It’s not exactly the mindset created by working for over ten years in the NHS as we both had. But we duly set up a medical practice, and it was during the down time in this new position when I remembered that I had another dream before I moved that I was no longer pursuing. Writing. The entrepreneurial mindset was already sparked, and that position in which we found ourselves gave me the freedom to believe that just maybe this time I might be able to make it work.
Those early decisions were the foundation for how I managed to pursue the loftiest of my professional ambitions. The worst moment in my career became the seed from which the best could grow. In the UK I always wanted to be a writer, and even wrote my first book while I was working in the NHS. But being in Cyprus allowed me to dedicate time to finding my voice as a writer. I found the time to dedicate to reading and honing my craft until I eventually wrote the book that snagged me an agent and a publishing deal. I learnt what it meant to be entrepreneurial, to decide for myself when and how hard I needed to work, and how to manage that work when I had no boss. And slowly over time, I found friendships with people that supported the idea of working for myself too.
During the time I lived in the UK I’m not sure that I knew anybody who owned their own business. But now once a month I have dinner with two girlfriends, both of whom are entrepreneurs. They are building their own businesses too. The dinner is about three friends getting together and doing whatever friends do when they drink wine and eat good Japanese food. We talk about our life, our homes, and whose kid managed to pee on the potty or slept through the night. But these dinners are also about supporting each other in our ventures. We discuss how things are going, who’s had a success, and maybe who has experienced a failure. We offer each other support and guidance, even though none of us really know the minutiae of each other’s work. We cheer each other on and encourage one another when we need it. These friends mean so much to me, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I’m embarking on a new venture now too, a passion project for which I’m currently doing the necessary training and development. They both offer the words of encouragement I need to move forward.
Eight years ago, I thought the only thing I wasn’t prepared to accept losing in Cyprus was the career I’d worked hard to achieve. As it turns out, now that I no longer have it, I don’t miss it at all. But as for the support of trusted friendships, I wouldn’t want to trade that for anything. Not again.
About two months ago I came up with an idea for a new book. It arrived a bit earlier than was expected or required as I was nowhere near finished with the book I was writing at the time. Usually an idea comes to me as I am working on my final edits, almost as if my conscious and subconscious are working in unison, dishing out a new idea idea when I need to move on. But this time it came in so hard that I almost stopped writing the book I was working on. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to hold off, and got that book wrapped up first.
Ideas for new books come to me in various stages of completion. Some charade as fully formed characters, others as snippets that need a lot of fleshing out. I’ve heard it said before that one good idea does not make a book, but it does usually constitute enough to get me started. Sometimes it’s the overarching plot or a particularly poignant scene that I imagine, maybe even an opening line. In this instance it was an opening line twinned with a reflective closing statement that got me all fired up, which would, I felt, unite the 90,000 words in between. So, a couple of weeks ago when I finally made a start, I couldn’t wait to get writing. As I worked on the idea I came up with a structure, a plot to tell the tale, and as I got the early scenes laid out on paper I thought it was all looking pretty good.
Then two weeks into the writing process, with roughly 14,000 words written, I had what I can only describe as a lightbulb moment. Other creative types will know the sort, and I suspect many others in professions of which I have no understanding will be able to appreciate the concept; a moment when you are so damn sure that you know exactly what you need to do, that you can’t ever imagine the outcome being anything other than perfect. Perhaps for a lawyer it is that breakthrough moment in a case, a final piece of evidence. For a surgeon that moment when she clips the right vessel and the bleeding suddenly stops. It’s that pivotal moment in time when you are sure that what you have just experienced is universal serendipity. For me as a writer it is what looks like the perfect idea, as if we were always meant to find each other and live happily ever after as New York Times bestsellers.
But the trouble with these fancy ideas is that they make your sturdy, stable ideas seem just that little bit less. They make you feel as if to stick with the original plan is playing it safe. Maybe as a surgeon or lawyer that’s a good idea, but let’s face it, somebody in my profession never wants to be accused of that. So, I spent the latter half of Friday morning mulling over my flashy new idea, trying to make it work. And when a couple of hours later I was still convinced it was the best idea I’d ever had I set about restructuring the whole novel. Of course it will work, I told myself. It’s amazing, I thought, certainly enough to tweet about. It was, I was sure, the perfect lightbulb moment. But do such moments ever really exist?
I didn’t work much this weekend, in part because we had a lot going on familywise, but mainly because in order to make my new idea work I had so much reorganisation to do in terms of my plot that I fancied instead just revelling in the idea for a bit longer. But yesterday morning when I came to sit down at my desk to do all that new planning and research, to find ways to incorporate that idea into the new manuscript which was barely out of nappies, I realised I couldn’t make it work. Not without losing everything else I already had. And without everything else, all that I had left was a flashy idea, and without the groundwork to hold it up, it didn’t even look that tempting anymore. I was left with a twist, and that on its own is nothing. What value is a novel concept, if it comes without substance? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not worth very much at all.
So yesterday I spent the best part of three hours doing not all that much in terms of writing. I had to work through the idea, test it from every possible angle in order to see it for what it was; a distraction. It was a major disappointment. But this time was necessary because it was what I needed to understand that what I had already planned really was the book that I wanted to write all along. The other, newer idea, was just a blip in the road. I’m sitting back at my desk now feeling much more comfortable that I’ve worked it through, with the knowledge that my new idea isn’t going to work. And in doing so I see the merits of what I have already done.
Changing focus during the writing of a first draft is always part of the course. This is my eleventh manuscript to date, and I feel like I have learnt quite a lot during that writing time, about what it means to see an idea through, and perhaps what it means to leave an idea behind. In my first books I took whatever idea I had and ran with it. This new idea would have without doubt ended up as a full-length novel. There was little planning to my work at that stage, and I would romp through whatever first draft came to mind and celebrate the completion of 80,000 words irrespective of what they were or what story they wished to tell. But writing isn’t about a word count. It’s about carefully manipulating an idea into a story that has meaning. A novel isn’t about a twist. Just like in real life, the moments that really count are never the extravagant gestures or carefully planned surprises. It’s the quiet interactions between people who care for one another that matter, the simple experiences shared between loved ones. When people look back at their lives it’s not the wedding they remember, but the acts of love and support that create the map of a shared life together that are cherished. The big moments are the foundations, but it’s the everyday experiences that help paint the picture of that life.
Moving from one idea to the next and trying to make things work in fiction never gets us very far. Working on something until it’s good? Now that’s where the true moments of magic are found. Rushing through to the end only leads to disappointment. My new book idea looked for a moment like it was everything I was looking for, but after taking the time to work it through I found myself back on the right track. It was an idea that looked too good to be true. But then again, most things that look that good usually are.
**SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES BELOW**
A long time ago, back before I had a publisher and without the benefit of a proper editor, I wrote a book which I self-published. It was an experimental book, and had an unpopular ending. When I wrote the end to that novel I was certain that it was the right one, and couldn’t imagine it any other way. I also wrote that book during a fairly crazy three month period after suffering a seizure which landed me in ITU. My protagonist was experiencing a hard time with her mental health, and I discovered that an unexpected seizure had the ability to shake the sturdiest of foundations. I struggled to get back to normality after that, and writing that book really helped. I was satisfied with how it turned out, but when the reviews started coming in I realised that a lot of people were not.
That’s the thing as a reader or viewer of fiction; we get invested. We start to have expectations and hopes for our characters. I was late to the Game of Thrones party, picking up season one when season two was just wrapping up. I devoured the first two seasons in one weekend (little shout out there to Life Before Kids) and have spent the last eight years waiting for the seasons to air. To say I’m into it, or that I’m a fan, is kind of an understatement. I’ve read all the books, listened to the audio, and I even have a selection of the T-shirts. There is a video of me watching Battle of the Bastards that I pray my husband never shows to anybody. As a lover of fantasy, I was amazed by the spectacle of the show, the intricate world created, and the mega-complex order of things. As a writer I was in awe of the way both books and show were written, the complexities of the dialogues, and the characters interactions. The foreshadowing and prophecies were inspired. But then this week’s episode left me feeling totally bereft. I was never a champion for Cersei, but her death left me feeling empty and disappointed. Not because she was dead; Cersei was always going to die. But I just didn’t expect her to die like that.
As I plot and write books, creating the character arc is massively important. Who are they, and what journey do they go on? What do they want, and what drives them? Questions such as these were the reason why Theon was and will forever be my favourite Thrones character, because his narrative is the best redemption story I have ever seen play out. It felt fitting, and right, that he should die for the family who raised him, the family for whom he had much to atone.
But poor Cersei.
She was the master of the game, wasn’t she? She was the most conniving and scheming of all the characters. She outsmarted them all, even Littlefinger. She was perhaps the one to fear the most. Never once did I cheer for Cersei throughout the whole time I’ve been watching Thrones, not even when she was locked in a cell for a whole season. I did feel for her when she was paraded through the streets during her walk of shame, but still I couldn’t bring myself to hope for retribution on her behalf. But her ending left me feeling that some how she had been let down, that to survive seven seasons in one of the deadliest worlds ever created, only to die under a pile of rubble was less than she deserved. I wanted her to go down with a fight, not a whimper. I also wanted some prophecies to be fulfilled, but it seems that was not meant to be either.
So, if this didn’t cut it for me, what would have made a good ending? What makes for a great character arc or story overall? I always think the best fiction reflects real life, even that which is set in a fantasy world. In Thrones we might be dealing with dragons and zombies, but the struggles of the characters, their feelings and hopes, the things that drive them on, are all real human emotions. They feel like real people. Their lives feel tangible, and thus we feel invested. We want our characters, whether we root for them or not, to fulfil their destiny. Just as we are told to live our lives well, to enjoy the years we have and reach old age without regret, we want our characters to do the same.
There will always be people who disagree on the endings of some of our favourite fiction. Fans like me will always be disappointed at some point, especially when we care so much. Where many people hated the ending of one of my earlier works, other people loved it. One person I remember even now took the time to write to me after she finished the controversial book. She told me that it made her feel less alone at a time when she was experiencing depression. She told me that the story was like reading her own thoughts, and thanked me for making her aware that she wasn’t the only one to experience such things. Where some people hated the end, the fact that it touched people enough to care about it is the best I can ever hope for as a writer. My job is to take people on a journey, and it’s impossible for everybody to experience or enjoy that journey equally.
I have talked about Thrones with as many people as I can find this week, mulling over the good the bad, the successes and the tears. The regrets, both for character and me as a viewer. Perhaps Cersei’s character arc was completed exactly as it was supposed to be. Perhaps dying with the one she loved was the only thing that she truly hoped for. Perhaps at the end she had no regrets. I hope the writers of Thrones don’t either, just as I don’t over the book I wrote that was badly received. I still feel the ending was right. Just like my characters, I only wish to reach the end of my story and feel like it played out exactly as it should. So far, I think I’m doing OK.