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.
The stages of writing a novel are many and varied, and some of them are easier than others. Take the final copy edit as an example. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to read my own book and look for typos, as long as I can find the will to tolerate reading my own material for the hundredth time and accept that I won’t find any mistakes, even though they are there. But I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel to be the very first. I have just reached the end of writing the first draft, and at no point during the revision process will it ever be this easy again.
Now that’s not to say that coming up with a worthy idea or manoeuvring my characters around for the duration of 90,000 is a doddle. On top of that, coming up with a decent hook is no mean feat. How many books have I written only to realise after writing the first draft that the hook needs work before it goes to a publisher or agent? Hint; every book I’ve ever written. But there is a certain freedom to be found in the mentality of writing a first draft, for me at least, which I think most writers who do this on a full time basis appreciate. That freedom comes from the knowledge that the first draft is allowed to be really, really shit.
Many writers have talked about writing a first draft, and one of my favourite quotes about this process comes from John Dufresne; The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but get it written. There should be no hesitations or concerns about language or poetic phrasing. Just get the damn thing written. You can edit it pretty later. And so if upon a first reading I find that the first draft is any good, even a little bit good, then I think that is a huge stroke of luck in my favour.
I often think of writing a book as a bit like crossing a torrential, raging river. Writing a first draft is the same as throwing in great big boulders to create stepping stones so that you can just about get from one side to the next without falling in the water and getting swept downstream. There’s nothing glamourous or elegant about it, and the point is simply to get from one side to the other by any means possible while your agent and publisher wait on the bank for a safe crossing to be created. Of course, they are carrying their own tools to help you, much more sophisticated tools that can be used later in the process, but they are still waiting on the other bank while you make that first exploratory journey. They don’t want to get on that crossing or get involved in its engineering until it already looks like a stable path.
So right now the stage I am at is that I’m back on the bank with the whole crew behind me, waiting to test the route I have laid. I’m standing there, looking at what I’ve done, and wondering whether the path is going to hold. This first edit is the hardest, but also the most rewarding period in writing a book. It’s the point when all the major players arrive at their stations, when you move your characters not only from A to B, but give them a purpose and motive behind it. There’s thought, not just from the writer, but from the characters. In real life we all have friends whose behaviour we can predict, whose responses we can anticipate, and creating a book full of characters with the purpose of telling a story is like getting to know new friends. If characters don’t start to think for themselves, ergo, directing the way of the narrative, the chances are they are not yet developed sufficiently to do so; you just don’t know them well enough yet.
I edited my first chapter yesterday and it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. My first draft comes in at just under 90,000, and it wasn’t until I hit 75,000 words that I really had the first lightbulb moment, that thought when I suddenly realised how to link the beginning to the end, and the relevance of all the major events mid-way through. And what is great to realise now is that those early stepping stones I tentatively laid just over a month ago right at the start of my journey serve a very nice purpose. Sometimes it’s necessary for a complete do-over, but this time it would seem that my early chapters, although they need work, serve as a great foundation for what I really want to say.
Although I might have reached the end of what I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel, I am about to commence the hardest. I’ve got my feet back in the water, and I’m praying that the stones I have set in place hold up as I expect them to. So far they look as if they just might.
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.
Last Thursday My Sister was released as a paperback. It was a great feeling to finally reach this point after such a long wait. The original manuscript was sold to my publisher back in 2015, and since then it’s been a steady process of editing, waiting for artwork, and biding my time until the release date approached. The original release was in the form of an eBook and trade paperback last April. I remember thinking that was the day upon which everything was riding, that a failure for the book to do well at that time meant it was all over for me as a writer. But fast forward twelve months, and I found myself once again feeling as if the latest release day held the key to the future.
The night before the trade paperback release I barely slept, then woke up with the jitters wondering what exactly would happen in the following twenty four hours. In reality I received a couple of bunches of flowers, about 100 twitter messages, and a sales order message from my editor. I couldn’t concentrate to do any writing for most of the day, and everything seemed to pass by in a bit of a blur without anything much really happening. This time around, despite my nerves about how the book would perform, my release day turned out to be a little different.
This time around I knew the score in advance; my editor had notified me about sales orders prior to release. That came as a huge relief because knowing that certain places like Tesco and Waterstones had placed an order, and that My Sister would be positioned in airports and train stations with W.H. Smiths, gave me the certainty that the general public would at least have the opportunity to find the book. Previously the sales channels were dominated by online vendors, and that always makes visibility more difficult, and therefore spontaneous purchases unlikely. Side note; the first person to send me a picture of My Sister on a sun lounger gets an extra special place in my heart.
Another difference this time related to my use of social media, which has been scaled right back since the arrival of my daughter. Yes, I’m still tweeting and I have lists created so that theoretically at least I don’t miss anything important, but the reality is I don’t check my accounts every day. Instantaneous responses are also pretty much a thing of the past, unless you strike the golden hours and tweet me during nap time.
The reality of the matter is that I spent this release day nursing a teething baby and taking her to the hospital for routine checks. I didn’t manage to organise Facebook advertising until the early evening, and I only checked my Amazon rank once. A year ago once an hour would have been the epitome of restraint. I did receive a lovely bunch of flowers from my editor once I arrived home, and only after the florist had already tired to deliver on two separate occasions earlier on in the day. It was only as the evening drew in that it really started to sink in that My Sister had been released for the final time, and that all across the UK it was visible to thousand of shoppers.
What has happened since release has been remarkable, and something new to me as an author. I know my publisher is happy so far, and that is obviously a huge relief. But hearing from people whom I have never met, telling me they loved my book, that they would like it to be one of their book club choices, and sending me pictures of the shelves in their local store has all been really exciting. It’s been great to receive so many messages from people around the world who are enjoying reading it. And in a week that was pretty good for book sales according to data from across the board (total consumer market value in excess of 30 million last week according to The Bookseller) I am just feeling very privileged to have my own little share of a rather large pie.
The stress that I endured the first time around, including the worry that if it didn't go so well I might get dropped by my publisher, while potentially valid, didn't get me anywhere. This time around, not being at my desk and barely even thinking about release day until my daughter was asleep made little difference to the success of the book. Sometimes stress does us a favour, helps get us through a challenge like a looming deadline or a difficult life event. But most of the time stress simply hinders our enjoyment of what might otherwise be a wonderful experience. So when my next book is released for the first time I intend to enjoy it for what it is; an opportunity to succeed, rather than an opportunity to stress over the very potential for failure.
I have heard it said that some writers do not really like the act of writing, that the first draft is just a hurdle to get over before the real fun begins. Although this is not how I feel about writing my first drafts, I can understand it. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. Of course it’s all fun in the beginning when your characters are fresh and doing exactly what you intended them to, but soon enough you reach the wastelands of Act Two, and even something as simple as getting from A to B seems like a giant challenge. That for me is part of the allure, but only because I am prepared to accept one vitally important covenant; the first draft of anything is going to be utterly shite.
And this is why I think some writers hate draft one, because they simply can’t stand to see the ugliness of all those raw words, strung together in their most unapologetic form. They prefer them crafted and honed. But I don’t think draft one is about prose or poetic sentences that people are going to highlight on their Kindle or start Goodreads discussions over. The first draft is about getting the skeleton of the story in order, or at least on the page so that it can be edited at a later date. It doesn’t matter if it sounds ugly or if some of the sentences are clunky. It’s OK that it’s a mess; the time for self-criticism comes later.
As a creative, self-criticism is my arch enemy, and the quickest route to stalling. I discovered it a long time ago, when I was still at school. Back then I was quite a good potter, and used to enjoy sculpting metaphorical structures based on dreams and Greek mythology. But when the time came to transition from GCSE to A-level the option to study pottery alone was no longer available: I had to also choose graphics or fine art. I hadn’t used a paintbrush for years, at least not for anything other than gluing together slabs of semi-dry clay. How was I supposed to compete with the other artists who were already painters?
So I went into those first lessons with a degree of self-doubt. Everybody seemed infinitely better than me, even before I had seen anybody’s work. But it was only because I was critical of myself, talked myself into doubting my abilities, and that set me at a distinct disadvantage.
The beginning was not the time to worry about what my paintings looked like. I should have been slapping as much paint onto canvases as I could until I had something to show for it. Instead I hung back, always a bit hesitant with my strokes. It culminated in me sitting through my exams painting the same clouds over and over, and barely finishing the composition. In short, I screwed it up. There is a place for self-criticism, only that wasn’t it.
It wasn’t until I began writing that I realised self-criticism could also be my friend. Back in the early days following the completion of my first manuscript, and right around the time I received my first set of agent rejections, I decided to self-publish. I created a cover, got the book ‘edited’, and before long my work was lose in the world. I was pretty proud of it, despite the fact in hindsight I can see it was lacking in just about every way. And it was all fun and games to begin with when friends and family and other well-meaning writers with whom I’d connected online were posting their 4 and 5 star reviews. But of course it didn’t take long for somebody to rip it apart. And while that hurt to start with, I realized that maybe I could use the negative reviews to my advantage. Here, self-criticism helped me get a better handle on where I was going wrong, and helped me work through some of my bad-habits when it came to writing. It also pushed me into hiring a book jacket designer, and gave me the impetus to take myself seriously.
I am just setting out to write my fourth psychological thriller. I know the score here; knock the first draft out as soon as possible, because it’s only then that the real work begins. But I am also beginning another project, something that is totally out of my comfort zone, and something that is deeply personal to me. I started a few weeks ago, and at first I could feel that same hesitancy in my writing that I could feel at school as a painter. Perhaps it was because the genre is different and I don’t know the tropes as well. Perhaps because in many ways this is my father’s story, and therefore it feels too precious to mess up, too important to leave those raw words and emotions on the page. But I’m beginning to find my groove and it feels good. I just have to remember to accept that the first draft of this new project most certainly will not be.
The life of a writer is pretty solitary. I spend most of my days, or at least I did before I had a child, sitting at my desk staring at a Word file. No music, no conversations with real people, and certainly no colleagues save those of my agent and editor who I converse with mainly via email. The crafting of a book takes months, even if you are the fastest of writers when it comes to the first draft. But all that time working alone, and all the introspection it takes to build a novel from the ground up, can create quite the hurdle when it comes to sharing work with others.
Writing is of course, for the most part, done with the intention to share it with the world. Besides journaling, what is the point of writing if not to be read? I have been publishing my work in some capacity for the last seven years now, but even now sharing a new manuscript with somebody, even somebody who has proven their faith in my work by accepting me as a client, still fills me with dread. It doesn’t matter how confident I am during the writing process, when I near completion doubt settles in like the snow across the south of Britain right now. Never do I question my manuscript more than when I type the title in an email to my agent for the first time.
Why? Because rejection sucks. My third manuscript has just been read and edited by my agent. This book is not yet under contract, so it was really important that I struck the right chord. Because I am aware that at any time my agent could decide that she no longer wishes to represent me. My publisher could decide to go ‘in another direction’. I remember what rejection looked like before I got an agent, and to be entirely honest, I really don’t want to go back there.
But even if my agent and editor love this book, that still doesn’t mean it is a success. There can be trumpets and fanfares and Champagne welcome meetings upon acquisition or publication, but what about after the work is released? Only the general public has the power to decide whether or not I did a good job, mob rule, like a gladiator in ancient Rome receiving a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I’m fortunate that the little yellow lines alongside my Amazon listing are top heavy, and I have more five star reviews than anything else. But the one star reviews are there.
But rejection is an inevitable part of the course, and as a writer I firmly believe it is something you need to learn how to handle early on. When I first submitted to agents I think I sent out twenty samples. I got twenty rejections. I am not even going to commit to how many rejections I have received since then. And it is tough to work through that at first. I’ll be honest, I came close to quitting. I was seven years and seven manuscripts into the process. But the turning point came for me when a lovely agent who shall remain nameless wrote me an email in response to reading my book. She told me that it wasn’t for her (I’m not sure she even represented thriller authors) but that I had a real talent and that I should absolutely not give up. That email was the push I needed to write to the agent I really wanted in order to remind her about my manuscript sitting in her slush pile. Three days later I had representation.
But rejection doesn’t end there. After that some publishers rejected it. But importantly, some didn’t. Some readers rejected it with their one star reviews. But more didn’t. My Sister is released as a paperback in less than a week. Tesco have not rejected it, meaning it is going to be in supermarkets pretty soon, along with a lot of bookshops. I have no idea how well it is going to be received, but even though some people will dislike it, and others might hate it, I still can’t wait to share it with the world. Because now that’s all I can do. Although rejection sucks, it’s inevitable, so I might as well just enjoy the ride.
When most people sign with a publisher for their debut novel, the contract is for two books. This is how I signed with Headline, and it felt pretty good at the time. Getting a contract for something I hadn’t even written from one of the big five is quite the mental endorsement, and injected a bit of confidence when it came to sitting down at my desk in front of a blank screen. Kind of, yeah, I got this. But any confidence I gleaned from having already signed a contract was shattered by the process. Book two was one of the hardest books I will ever write. It was the first time I ever had to work to a deadline, and the first time I was writing with specific people in mind who needed to like the finished product. But with their help and support and some cheer leading along the way, I got there with only one rewrite. But setting out to write book three was something different again, because I was doing so out of contract.
Before getting an agent or publisher, selling one of my books and securing representation was the only thing I ever thought about, and it often felt like an impossible task. I was plagued by questions: Am I writing something that an agent will like? Will this book make it out of the slush pile? Will anybody even read it? I just had no idea. But this time I started writing book three knowing that at least my agent would be looking at it. I started book three knowing that I had already sold two books, so theoretically at least, could sell another. I was starting to write with all the knowledge I had gained from the lessons learnt in writing the previous two. That gave me a sense of freedom to really focus on the crafting of the story, rather than wonder what the hell I was going to do with it once it was written.
And I honestly thought I had learnt my lesson with book two; write the book, and do it only once. Decide on a story and stick to it. Before I began I had the whole story planned out, and I got about 80,000 words in without any problems or questioning myself. I had a near-complete first draft, albeit rough and raggedy. But then the unthinkable happened; I got another idea that was infinitely better. And that raised a dilemma. Should I rewrite book three as well?
So there I was with an almost complete book, no contract, and an unwritten idea that was just begging to come out. Did that mean what I had written was no good? Did it need tossing? I had learnt a lot of lessons writing two books, but it seemed that insight into the value of my writing was not one of them. Stephen King wrote in his memoir, On Writing, that, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Did that mean I should stick to the book I had already written? I wasn’t keen to disobey the master, but I decided against it, shoveled it into a drawer, and set out to rewrite book three.
A couple of weeks later, sitting in London having dinner with my agent, celebrating the fact that book two was finally finished, she tentatively approached the idea of book three. I confessed that yes, it was written, but that I had plans to rewrite it. She must have wondered who the hell she had signed. She asked for five or six polished chapters in order that she might submit to my publisher, but it turns out I couldn’t deliver them. I’ve never been very linear when it comes to writing, and I have to accept that the first draft of anything I write is utter horse shit. Until the final pages are polished, the first chapters are ugly. But that’s OK, because I know that now, and I try not to let it bother me. That’s one of the things I have learnt. So I just kept on going, even when it felt tempting to go back to that book that was already written. Now the new book three is complete, and has been read and edited by my agent with tentative approval. I have completed an edit myself and it’s now back with her.
So are we there yet? I have no idea. Will this book secure me another contract? I have no idea about that either. I have learnt not to second guess what people will think. The market is tough, and I have no idea whether or not there is space for another one of my books. I sure hope there is, because I already have book four planned. The synopsis is probably the easiest I have ever written and I feel really confident about the story that lies ahead. But this time I am also planning a chapter breakdown before I even begin to write the book. Because although there is still so much that I don’t know, what I do know is this; I do not want to write this book twice. But at least I’m feeling confident. So again as I sit down to write the first draft of my next book I'm going to say, yeah, I got this. I think I know what I'm doing. For the time being at least.
Just before Christmas of 2013 I started writing a book. It had no title then, and only a loose premise. I thought it was going to be about two estranged sisters reuniting. I had a vague idea that they would meet, that there would be some sort of boyfriend trouble, and that was about all I had. It took me the best part of the next ten to twelve months to wrangle that first idea into a book which I decided to call If You Knew My Sister. At that point I had no agent, and therefore no publisher, but I was an old hat when it came to publishing independently via Amazon.
At the time I had published several works under my maiden name, and had a catalogue of six titles (nine if you count the various serial releases). But when I first decided to self-publish I had no idea what I was doing. I am somewhat ashamed to say that my first book underwent no editorial work, and I knocked the cover together myself on Paint. Yes, Paint. It was awful, but I thought it was all a bit Avant Garde, artistic, and moody. I was probably the only one. And I was probably also missing the point because besides anything else, it was supposed to be a thriller.
My second book wasn’t much better. I still managed to construct the cover on Paint in the first instance, better than the first it must be said, but still far from eye-catching. But once I realized the benefits of Photoshop my second title underwent a facelift, and that was the impetus to also overhaul my publishing journey. I sat down to read my reviews with a critical eye, looked out for recurring themes. It was a depressing task. It is not always nice to see what total strangers have to say about you from behind the safety of a computer screen. But I made friends with other self-publishers and spent a ridiculous amount of time in a forum, learning from people who knew more than I did and who were more experienced. I employed an editor, then a second editor, and also a designer. My aim was to add an air of professionalism to the work I was producing. I was a reader; I knew what books looked like. I wanted to produce something similar. And I think slowly I started to get it right. Sales picked up. Reviews improved. Then with the help of a free promotion and a Bookbub advert I reached the top of the free charts on Amazon with one of my titles. I was number one, and I couldn’t bloody believe it. And after the free period ended that title remained in a charting position for a few days of amazing sales. I have never checked Amazon so often, or with more enthusiasm. I was refreshing my sales data by the minute. Then a month later I received a cheque to the value of four figures and I was on cloud nine. I felt like I had achieved. I felt as if I had made progress as an author, and that month we paid our mortgage with the money from book sales. Job done.
Despite all that I hadn’t forgotten my dream to publish via a traditional publishing house with an agent to represent me and my work. Still, when I completed If You Knew My Sister I was on track for the same self-published journey; it was edited – although I would go on to learn I was quite wrong about that – and it had a cover all ready. My designer did a fantastic job on a number of my covers, and that final cover is the one that still stirs disappointment when I remember that it never got a chance to be used. But at the last minute prior to publication I took the plunge and began the submission process to agents. It was a gamble, and it took six months, but I found my dream agent. She later went on to secure the publishing deal that changed my life.
Fast forward three years, and I am now exactly one month prior to the release of the UK paperback of that same book that was all set to be self-published. It is now called My Sister (still If You Knew My Sister in the US), but since the day it was purchased by Headline it has been worked on and seen by so many people in the publishing world. And it’s strange, because perhaps partly because of that this book already doesn’t really feel like mine anymore. It’s been available online and in selected bookstores for almost twelve months now. It has over 100 reviews on Amazon. There are a number of foreign editions already published. This book already belongs to those people who have read it. And yet here we are, one month prior to publication.
When I was self-publishing I could, if I had wanted to, write a short novel and have it up for sale by the end of the day. Yet here, with My Sister, it has taken four years to get from the decision to write this book to reach the impending paperback release. And back when I was self-publishing I knew what to expect. I knew that the release day meant little in terms of sales. I knew that if I got a Bookbub advert I’d earn out the cost, and no doubt enjoy some time in the charts. I knew that reviews would be ridiculously hard to come by. I knew that in order to make sales I would have to advertise, spend money, do promotions, and generally work my butt off. But now for My Sister as it is about to enjoy its main release I have done my bit, or thereabouts. Now it’s over to my publisher, sales teams, and individual book sellers. This book is no longer about me, and what happens next is out of my hands. Even though I have been publishing for the last eight years in some capacity or another, and am about to start my fourth book, it feels as if I am right back at the beginning, and that seems like a pretty awesome place to be.
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.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
Headline In Pre empt for debut thriller
Pre-emp for If You Knew My Sister
Psychological Thriller stirs up rights market
Books Before the Buzz
My Sister book review on writing.iw