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.
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
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.
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