The post Christmas period has got to be one of the worst times of the year for feeling good about ourselves. The excitement of the festivities is over, our bank balances are a reality we can’t escape, and the world around us seems concerned with how we are going to improve ourselves in the New Year. People ask what our New Year's Resolution is going to be, as if we need to identify our mistakes from the departing year and see what we need to do better in the year ahead. Losing weight is a typical one, and no doubt somewhere out there is a gym offering twelve months membership for the price of six, which if you’re not a gym person to start with is about eleven months longer than you’re realistically going to need.
I’m a fan of Christmas, and love everything about it, but I’m pretty much the Scrooge of New Year. Christmas is all about coming together with people we love, about nurturing relationships with ourselves and others. New Year on the other hand is about accepting that your relationship with yourself needs work, that ultimately there is something about the material of your life that needs to change. Yes, it’s about self improvement, but only by first accepting that the starting point is ultimately one of inadequacy.
While some people might find this a good starting point and look forward to making a change on the first day of the New Year, a smoker for example who wants use it as a springboard to a healthier life, there is a huge pressure about marking one single day as the turning point for change. It renders all other 364 days of the year as somehow less valuable for taking steps towards a positive shift in your life, as if time is infinite and we can afford to waste it. Mae West once said that you only live once, but that once is enough if you live right, and it’s a good rule to live by. Making every day count. Conversely there are also people who put off making resolutions full stop, as if this somehow frees them from the ties of January 1st. But waiting for New Year to make the change we crave, or making the decision to avoid following your dreams on that day, ultimately means giving ourselves permission to delay chasing the life we really want.
When I was younger I used to enjoy giving myself a challenge on January 1st, making changes as we rang in the New Year. Some of the things I promised myself over the years were that I’d give up smoking, that I’d join a gym, and that I’d write my first novel. Giving up smoking on New Year’s Day, a bank holiday spent socialising in the company of other smokers rendered that resolution moot before I even woke up with the hangover from the last night of the previous year. The gym in January is always packed, and I found myself queuing for the treadmill. I haven't enjoyed being in such close proximity to other peoples' sweat since I spent my youth on the edge of a mosh pit. As for writing in January . . . that was more promising, but still my attempts amounted to nothing more than a few chapters of a badly planned psychological thriller that never really got off the ground.
But since then I have given up smoking. I have found an exercise routine that I enjoy because I’ve made it part of my life. I've written nine novels, if you count my self-published work and pending manuscripts. But none of these things happened because of promises I made to myself on New Year’s Eve. Instead, it’s because I made the changes to do the things I wanted because they couldn’t wait. I began working towards them when they were right for me, and when not doing them was no longer an option. They stopped being resolutions, and instead became dreams of a better life – as I saw it - and things I couldn’t live without.
So now as I look back on the year passed I use it as a chance to see not where I’m going wrong or what I need to change, but as a chance to see what I’ve achieved over the last twelve months and take stock of where I’m at with my aims. To be kind to myself and be thankful of what I’ve done and for what I have. And I hope what I find is that there is not some pending wish that I have left hanging. But if there is, I probably don’t want it enough to chase it anyway, so I can give myself a break and stop worrying about it. After all, there’s always next year.
With all the best intentions, writing a book takes quite a bit of time. My first book took me at least a year to write, working at night and at the weekends, fitting it around work and life. And setting out on that journey, uncertain whether or not I would be able to sustain it long enough to make it from day one, when I was sitting at a blank screen, all the way through to the final sentence. To keep showing up, doing the work and putting in the hours takes a lot of positivity, self belief, and optimism. To sit and work for such a long time without any knowledge as to whether or not your work will ever be read, seen, purchased, or even finished takes a degree of courage. So when you put it out there, either as a self-published author or via the traditional publishing route as I did with MY SISTER, seeing the first critiques coming in can be a nerve-wracking time.
And once the book is ‘out there’ the aim is obviously to get it in front of readers. With a bit of luck the first reviews will be positive. It’s a good start if they are. And it’s possible to form relationships with bloggers and early readers who are keen to support debut writers. Their reviews will focus on the best elements of your work and be encouraging in their critique. But there will always come a point when somebody reads your book and hate it.
Back when I wrote my first book I had no concept of this. I thought it was possible to write a book and have vast swathes of people enjoy it without any haters. My positivity spread over into my agent submission process, which elicited my first negative reviews in the form of rejection slips. There’s nothing more direct than no. At the time I was surprised; I naively thought that not all that many people got their act together long enough to write a whole book, so obviously out of all these agents I was sending it too – there were lots - somebody would literally be waiting on my envelope and my sample chapters, nicely bound with red string, thank you very much. Nobody wanted it.
And it didn’t get much better after that. Of course there were some well-meaning friends and relatives who ‘loved’ it, and actually a few people who I don’t know had some great things to say about it after I self published it on Amazon. But the negative reviews obviously came too. They focused on the edit – which was really just me looking for typos – the poor cover – which I knocked together on Paint, and the fact that some people didn’t even think it constituted a thriller. But when I chose to ignore the one word ‘boring’ reviews and actually took the time to digest what some people took the time to say, the negative reviews were spot on, even if reading the negative comments about a year’s work kind of hurt.
Since then I have received all sorts of criticism from readers. When you are self-publishing getting your book in front of readers is hard, and getting those readers to review it once they’re done is harder still so you have to take the rough with the smooth. But at the time I valued the genuine criticism because it was the only feedback I was getting. Agent’s rejection slips did nothing to tell me where I was going wrong. But the reviews made it possible to look for trends, recurring comments that acted as pointers so that I could improve my writing.
After MY SISTER was published reviews were much easier to come by. My publisher worked hard to get my book in front of book bloggers and reviewers, and before it was even published the reviews were coming in. But that still doesn’t mean they are all positive. And just this week I completed a hashtag search on Instagram and found somebody posting that they didn’t really like my book. In fact, they didn’t even finish it. Nothing sucks more than that.
But what I have realised since the early days of self-publishing is that the reviews are none of my business. My job as the writer is to write a book, hope that it’s good enough to get published, and hope that more people like it than don’t. And so even once the writing process is over the need to keep that optimism and self-belief has never been greater. Fortunately writers have this in abundance. Otherwise we’d never get the book written in the first place.
Anybody who follows my Instagram page will know that I spent five hours in a paediatric outpatient department today. It was a pretty torturous experience; the background noise of babies grumbling, the lethargy of tired parents losing their cool, and tears as a cheeky boy snatched a rice cake from an unsuspecting baby girl. At times it felt as if we would never make it out of there, especially when they informed us that they’d lost my daughter’s notes. But as we had little choice about being there when it's something as important as our child's health we grit our teeth and got on with it, coming up with every unimaginable way to prevent the inevitable meltdown. We didn’t avoid it, but still, we got through it.
When I signed with Headline back in 2015 it was a huge moment for me. The idea of having a book deal had at one point seemed like an unattainable dream, back when I was writing without an agent and collecting rejection slips with each passing day. But I kept going with a quiet optimism, and a belief that one day I would succeed in finding somebody who believed in my novel as much as I did. Still, when I received the email to say my book had sold I was speechless. But not only because MY SISTER had sold to a great publisher, but because they had also decided to buy a book I was yet to write.
Now that kind of faith in my ability to provide something that was not only attractive to the publisher but salable to an ever fluid market brought with it a set of new anxieties for me. I was immensely proud, but also scared; I had never written a novel to order before. I had always done my own thing. But with the editing process for MY SISTER complete, I had to start my second, contracted, psychological thriller.
It began easily enough; unplanned and uncontrolled. That was how every book started back then. I got an idea and ran with it. But when you are writing to meet contractual deadlines, and a synopsis that you provided, writing with such freedom is unsustainable. Because going off on every random tangent without a destination is not without consequence. Book two grew not only in size but complexity. But as it grew it began to veer further and further from its brief. The synopsis seemed less relevant the further I progressed, and a meeting with my agent left me with the impression that I didn’t understand my own book; by then I was a few drafts and 110,000 words in. That's about nine months of work that had stopped making sense.
And the hardest thing to admit as my submission deadline approached, was that I wasn't really happy with where I had ended up. Quite simply, book two had grown into a monster. It was much like today’s hospital visit - there was a whole lot of fuss, with people running around all over the place, but when it came to the plot, much like my daughter's notes, it was lost.
I wrestled with it a bit longer but with the pressure of deadlines looming right around the corner I submitted it to my agent. I knew I needed some guidance, but the hardest thing to admit to both myself and her, was that if I'd have been searching for representation at that time I wouldn't have submitted that manuscript. I knew it was far from ready. Obviously my editor knew that too and we arranged a meeting, and I planned a trip to the UK. And as I boarded an early flight to London on a crisp December day in 2016, knowing that about seven hours later I would have to explain how I planned to resolve the issues with my mess of a manuscript, I was struck by an overwhelming thought; I needed to write another book. Plenty of great writers will tell you not to give up on something because it got hard, but I knew drastic action was the only way forward. So instead of working on my edits during the flight I wrote a new synopsis. It was a new book, but one that without the first draft of book two might never have come to mind. And the gamble worked. My editor loved it. All I had to do was go back to the drawing board, start from chapter one. And oh yes, could I do it in just a few months? I decided I could at least try.
With a lot of time at my desk I got the book written in the two months proposed. I slipped away from life at the weekends and worked early and until it was late. And after submitting to my agent I got the email I was waiting for: she loved the book. Fortunately my editor did too.
In the year it took me to rework the mess of the first draft into the final manuscript a lot has changed. I bought a house while it was still being built, managed to move in. I lost a father to cancer, and spent six unforgettable weeks sitting at his bedside. And recently, just after I got my copy edits back I too became a mother when we adopted our beautiful baby girl. In this last year book two has grown, and I have grown with it. It has been the most challenging book I have ever written. It has been one of the hardest years I think I have lived. But last Friday I submitted my copy edits to my editor. That means we are nearly there. It means that book two is nearly finished. It means, just like today, with a little bit of grit, I got through it.
BETWEEN THE LIES is due to be released on 12th July 2018
It's a couple of months since the publication of My Sister as an e-book and trade paperback, and it's been an important and busy time. So much seems to have been happening, most of which has been behind the scenes stuff. I've been working to finish book two, whose provisional title I will keep secret just a little bit longer, and get that sent back to my agent. I managed to do that by last Friday, and the following Monday she gave me the go ahead to send it over to my editor. Besides the day your editor tells you the edits are finished, there is no better feeling in the world. It's a very important landmark in the process of the manuscript becoming a book!
Also I am back to working on book three which feels great. I had already written a rough first draft of the intended book three late last year. But then I had a fortunate or unfortunate moment of inspiration depending on the way you look at shelving 80,000 written words. I came up with a completely different story. I looked at it as on opportunity to run with what I thought was a great idea and decided to start afresh. I guess some ideas just come to you and you feel they need to be taken forward. I'm about 80% done on the new project, and it is really starting to come together. Although I haven't quite got the first draft completed, I am going back and forth making changes, developing characters, and really starting to put flesh on bones. It's the best part of the writing process for me, and a lot of fun. Hopefully I will be finished on this draft within the next few weeks.
But My Sister has also been doing me proud. It has been released in France (Sisters) from the publishing house Bragelonne and I recently visited their headquarters in the beautiful city of Paris. It was great to see how positive they are, and also that they are such a supportive team. Meanwhile in the UK it is undergoing a price promotion this month, available for 99p across all platforms. This has resulted in a lot of increased sales. Across Amazon My Sister seems to be ranking consistently well, despite it stubbornly refusing to break into the top 100 suspense category (currently #106), but I did hear that yesterday it made it into the number two spot for the whole of the iBooks chart in the UK which was absolutely wonderful. It was also in great company, nestled between J.P. Delaney's The Girl Before, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Anybody who has read my bio will know just what that means to me. All in all a great first two months.
So a massive thanks to everybody who has picked up a copy so far. But for now I need to get back to book three and try to get it finished before book two lands back on my desk in a few weeks time!
You can pick up your copy of My Sister for your device here.
I used to think that getting an agent was the hard part, and that if only I could do that everything else would fall into place. And of course, I still agree that getting an agent is the hard part. Only what I’ve learned since finding representation is that there are many other hard parts to be found just past the point of getting signed.
Last week was for me the culmination of years of dreaming and hard work; my debut novel, MY SISTER, was published. The day in itself went by in a bit of a blur, mainly spent fire fighting; answering questions, sending tweets, and keeping up to date with release day business. But amidst the celebration there was a lot of work to get done because although My Sister is loose in the world there remains a lot of other work to do behind the scenes. One such job was to get book three to my agent for its first public viewing. And that is almost done. I have one more read through to do before I send it at the end of the week. And it’s just as nerve wracking as it ever was because technically she has no obligation to represent this new piece of work. For the sake of sanity let’s just pretend that’s not true. But there is also book two, the second book of my current contract to complete. I’ve been waiting on the return of the edits for this manuscript for a while now, and last Friday they arrived.
Just before publication I tweeted about the dedication and massive amount of hard work it takes to get your debut novel into the world. In the years since I first picked up a pen I have written plenty of manuscripts, seven I think, which equates to approximately 1,000,000 written words. That’s not counting all the discarded words that are required in order to get to the finished product. A conservative estimate would be that I have discarded close to as many words as I have kept. But there is a huge difference between all these discarded manuscripts and the debut novel from book two; these books were written on my own, behind closed doors. Until I got that call from an agent who wanted to work with me it was all up to me. The manuscripts were my property. My imaginary world, my imaginary people, and I got to do to them as I wished. But once you are under contract, and writing with other people in mind, some of the freedom that comes with book one is lost. In short, book two is a beast not easily tamed.
In all truth book two has been difficult for me, and we are not home and dry yet. While the enthusiasm was there as strong as ever, suddenly I was no longer writing for myself. Now I was writing for myself, my agents, my editor, and with a deadline in mind as set out by a legally binding contract. And book two needed writing at the same time as completing editorial work for book one. This was the first time I had ever had to focus on more than one book at a time, and slipping between the two worlds was not always easy.
So I ended up writing book two twice, in two distinct periods. The first draft was followed by a second, much more convoluted draft when I started to make some massive editorial changes. It was also no small decision last summer to spend a whole month changing the tense from first person present to first person past. Any writer who has ever done that will tell you it is a difficult challenge. Still, I got it finished and submitted that draft to my editor as per the deadline. The only thing was, I wasn’t terribly happy with it. But I also knew by then that the process of reaching a final draft would be a combined effort, and so I wasn’t worried by the fact that I knew it still needed substantial work. And sure enough, that was what my editor thought too.
What we did have in that first draft was a lot of good content, and so with renewed enthusiasm with book one at the printers I sat down, focused on writing a clear synopsis, and presented that in a meeting to my editor. She loved it, so it was back to the drawing board, reworking the content and rewriting sections of the book. It felt easier, smoother, and altogether a much more satisfying process.
The latest edits for this revised draft which came back to me last Friday reflect this, and there are lots of positives to take. Editors are well schooled in delivering critique alongside praise, so the work still to be done doesn’t feel as daunting as perhaps it should. And so I am setting off once again in search of a completed book two. I have the feeling that this time at least we are on a much better road.
And that’s the reality of being a working writer. The hard work doesn’t stop, and actually just seems to increase. There remain uphill challenges the other side of representation. You just have to roll your sleeves up and get the job done, just like you would after a rejection letter arrived. And now I’m in the process of writing book three and editing book two it doesn’t feel as challenging as it did when book one and book two were running simultaneously. I feel like I’m – sort of - on top of things. I can even tell you I’m enjoying it. Even when my editor suggests that it would have been better written in first person present tense. I guess sometimes you just have to put it down to experience and focus on getting the job done.
So publication day arrived. I thought about writing a post about how I felt about that, about how excited I was, and how dreams were coming true. But as this isn't a therapy session and you probably don't need me to bare quite so much of my soul, I thought I'd show you instead a little bit about what publication day was actually like. Because I don't know about you, but I have (had, at least) a certain view of what publication day might be like many years ago when I was still searching for an agent. And I'll be honest, it was kind of glitzy, strikingly similar to Carrie's publication day in SATC, and was nothing like what publication day actually turned out like. So here, from beginning to end, is pretty much everything I did minus toilet breaks on the day when My Sister was launched into the world.
00:42 - Realise that it's publication day. Send excited tweet and find awesome pig gif that just about sums up my mood.
07:00 - Alarm goes off and the first thought, obviously, is that the book should be out now. Quickly check Amazon, see that the preorder button has disappeared. See a few new reviews, decide in the interest of having a good day that it's probably best not to read them, you know, just in case.
07:30 - Answer all tweets. Have a quick burst of excitement, cut some shapes David Brent style around the bedroom, generally making a nuisance of myself with my husband who's trying to get ready for work.
07:45 - With breakfast and shower complete I arrive at my desk. Answer some more tweets. Decide to read the Amazon reviews. We're good so far. Finish the blog post that I was supposed to have finished yesterday, realise writing at 11 pm when I'm shattered is a bad idea. Rewrite most of what I wrote the night before. Send it off to my publicist ready for my blog tour next week.
09:15 - Caffeine top-up. Start publication day blog post. Take a couple of phone calls from patients at our clinic.
10:10 - Start working on book three.
10:45 - Flowers arrive! They are from my agents, the people who made all this all possible. Have a little moment of disbelief. Realise that although I started working on book three, I've barely done a thing.
10:55 - Back to working on book three. Interrupt the working when I receive an email from my publisher with a summary of everything that has happened so far, from the first proof copies of the books, to the earliest sales data for trade paperback preorders.
11:35 - More flowers! So pleased to get a second bunch of flowers from my publishers, totally unexpected. Have another moment, take a hayfever tablet, and try and get back on with work.
12:00 - Realise work is a total write off today, so put some music on (Emile Sande) answer more tweets. Get an email from my publicist with information for the blog tour which is starting next Monday. She has attached a banner which is awesome.
12:45 - Settle back down to do some work, and manage to get a whole chapter done. Just as I'm finishing I get an email from my agent with an updated copy of the French cover. Read over the morning's edits, decide the morning wasn't a total write off after all.
14:00 - Break for lunch (fish finger sandwich as I haven't done any shopping in days) and eat that while checking Amazon. Slightly disappointed to see that the books chart position hasn't changed all morning, then realise I'm looking at the paperback numbers. Switch to the Kindle edition and see that the position is 560,000 positions higher than I thought. Happy with that, and two new reviews which have some good things to say. Settle back down to work on book three, but am interrupted a few minutes later.
14:25 - Ikea delivery! Finally bought a sofa for outside, and cannot resist the lure of the boxes. Put on some more music (Creed) and set about making it. Ponder the idea that there is probably a finite amount of Ikea furniture that any one person can build in a lifetime, and that I have undoubtedly surpassed it. Finish just as husband is getting home from work. Very convenient. Find dirty cat footprints on the white cushion five minutes after finishing. Because, of course the cat was always going to sit on it as soon as he'd been in the mud.
17:30 - Head out for a bit of celebratory dinner. Raise our glasses with diet Coke as hubs is oncall. Battery on my phone dies. Have mild panic about absence from twitter.
19:00 - Back home, phone charging. Update twitter, pleased to see some love for My Sister in the shape of independent blogger competitions. Earmark five of my own copies for a giveaway, post that to twitter. Try to finish blog post at the same time as keeping up with twitter replies.
20:00 - Answer last emails and catch up with various social media outlets like Instagram and FB that I've been ignoring all day. Realise I haven't posted to Facebook about the release, and somehow still fail to do so. Do however manage to check Amazon, and find book in the Guardian Bookshop which makes me ridiculously happy because I read that paper every day.
21:30 - Pour some wine when I reach the conclusion that's it for the day, and put my feet up. Decide my growing Amazon obsession is unhealthy and promise myself no more for the rest of the day.
23:10 - Head to bed, read the first chapter of a new book. Check Amazon despite my promises to myself. Realise I still didn't finish this post but my mind flicks to a problem with the first chapter of book three. I fall alseep thinking about that and have the weirdest dream about Teresa May.
It’s just over a week until My Sister will be set loose into the world, and still I haven’t given it a huge amount of thought. The thing is I have so many other things I am focusing on that My Sister feels a bit like a long lost friend, that person that you intend to call, only you never quite get round to doing so because you know they are doing just fine. And with My Sister on autopilot I’ve spent most of the last month writing and editing a new book and waiting on edits for the second. But every now and again I get a little reminder of the impending release that’s looming in nine days time.
The most obvious and exciting of these reminders was the arrival of a ticket from DHL. Knowing I hadn’t ordered anything I convinced myself it was a box of books, and I wasn’t disappointed. Twelve lovely copies all in a row, minus those snaffled by eager family members. Friends sent me screen shots of their Amazon pre-orders too, and I added pre-order buttons to my website. What started off as a vague idea for a book a few years ago has in the last few days become something tangible. It's ready. There's nothing else to do. Whether I’m ready or not is another matter entirely.
But I suppose I am. I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. From about the age of nine years old to be semi-precise, during a time when I also wanted to be a makeup artist in Hollywood and the first female fighter pilot in the RAF. I suppose at that age anything feels possible. But then I picked up my first adult book (Gerald’s Game, by Stephen King) and all other dreams faded; I wanted to be a writer. That was before I had even opened the cover. Why? Because there was this great picture on the front along with the name of the author in embossed gold lettering. The coolest black and white 80’s style author shot on the back. In short, the guy looked cool. I suggested borrowing it which stirred much furor from my folks, a fact which only served to make me all the more enthusiastic.
The thing was it seemed so different to the books I had read up until then. And of course it was, turning out to be a horror story concerning a sadomasochistic weekend gone wrong, but still you get the point. But equal to the book was the conversation that ensued between the grownups of the room about how King must be crackers to write the kind of things he did, which seemed so bizarre to me. I couldn’t understand it. It was just a story, wasn’t it? Make believe? I realised then that some writers could hold a sort of magic over their readers, created by their words alone. They could make you believe things, even to the point that you might question their own sanity. And I wanted in on that. Incidentally I borrowed the book. Loved it. I boxed up my Winnie the Pooh and Roald Dahl books not long after I’d finished it and started visiting different shelves in the library from then on, still wondering why anybody would handcuff another person to a bed in the first place. There were, for obvious reasons, huge plot points lost on me. Still, the book won me over.
And just like when I held that King book in my hand for the first time, holding my own book felt just as magical. Something I had dreamed of, including the embossed lettering. I tore open the box, stroked the cover, turned the pages, read snippets from various chapters. I shared it on Snapchat and Instagram it. Was it mine? Really? Was this my doing? It all seemed a bit unbelievable. But there they were, twelve copies of a book with my name on them. My family read the acknowledgements and seemed pleased they got a mention. My husband Facebooked a picture when he found his name in the back pages, and told everybody prepared to listen how proud he was of me. Somebody happened to give him a bottle of champagne as a thank you for doing a good job, and so we have put that in the fridge and earmarked it for the release date next Thursday. Next Thursday.....so close I can barely believe it. I was talking to my brother and he joked that it would be great if somebody made My Sister into a film. I suppose maybe it would be. But right now, it’s a book. Finally, it’s a book.