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.
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.
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.
It's just over six months since the publication of MY SISTER in the UK. During that time there have been at least five other foreign releases that I know of, and there are still more to come. And each time a new foreign edition is released, the latest being the US edition entitled IF YOU KNEW MY SISTER, I'm reminded what a joy it is to see my book in print. Being a writer was a childhood dream, from the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. I used to think that if ever I got an agent and a publishing deal life would change. Of course it did, not quite in the Hollywood, champagne lunch way I envisioned, but suddenly I had to travel to different countries to meet editors, work longer days than I ever imagined, and hit deadlines that were not always easy. But the last six months have brought more changes still, and the routine I used to keep as a writer simply no longer exists.
I've written before about my plans to become a parent through adoption. My husband and I began the process over three years ago and during that time our hopes have risen and fallen it seems at times with the seasons. Just over twelve months ago we thought we were adopting, and then it all fell through for reasons beyond our control. I began to doubt it would ever happen for us, and had started the process of trying to be alright with that. But a few months ago our dreams came true. We were chosen to become the parents of a beautiful baby girl. To call it life changing would be a bit like describing a transatlantic rowing challenge as a nice little jaunt. The ways in which my life has altered are too numerous to count, and even if I wanted to I wouldn't have the time. All of these changes, even the difficult ones are beyond wonderful, but having a child has had a huge impact on my life as a writer.
When you begin the adoption process you think that you are 'getting ready' for when the big day arrives. In hindsight it's quite different. The adoption process is one thing. Adoption is another. Before and after. Even though you are doing what you need to do in order to bring a child home, really you are just getting on with life. The idea of a future with a baby stays with you, but there is nothing tangible on a day to day basis to remind you that you are hopeful, would-be parents. You're not really getting ready like you would if you were pregnant. That sort of bodily change forces your hand. You might want to keep going all the way up until the birth, but at some point you are forced to give in to the inevitable. Hormones change. Biology takes over. When you get the adoption call you go from working twelve hours a day and enjoying easy weekends doing whatever the hell you like, to full time parenting in just a few days. Maybe hours. You begin learning on the job with the most demanding of bosses.
So invariably I had all sorts of stuff hanging in the air when we got the call. Book two had just arrived in my inbox ready for a major edit. I spoke with my agent and my editor who were both wonderfully generous with their time, understanding, and gifts. They gave me the freedom to take my time, and although it turned out that I only needed a month it was a relief to have the option to take longer. I was planning to go to Harrogate for the Theakston's Crime festival, but that plan was quickly shelved. Book three was almost finished, just about ready for those fifteen hour days when you don't leave the desk until you pull it all together. Instead it grew hotter as I did little to it for the month of editing book two. I had to prioritise the time I had and for the first time I was forced to tell myself that I couldn't do everything. My days were suddenly segmented into ninety minute periods of wake and sleep. I worked through every nap and late into the night, showered quickly, and ate on the move. My husband discovered the supermarket. The house grew steadily more messy. And during that time of night feeds and little sleep I fell in love with my new baby and the new, remarkable version of my life.
It takes time to get to grips with motherhood, and how you balance that with life and work. The challenge posed by what used to be everyday routine tasks, including those personal ones that were normally done while alone. Changing the nappy of a moving target, legs to attention at forty five degrees. It takes time to adjust and learn the new routine, find a way for your old life and your new life to coexist. But now with the final - obviously, that's a subjective final- draft of book three almost in the bag, things are starting to feel easier, even if this post has been written with a break for feeding and is being finished as we approach 1 a.m. with a promise of a 4 a.m. wake up call. But with the idea for book four making steady progress in my mind I know I am drawing to a close on book three. I know the routines of being a writer, even if I have had to adapt. Life changes and therefore so do I. I know the idea for book four wouldn't have come without book three being ready. Babies are not quite the same. They don't wait for you to be ready. But I am living the dream. Both of them.
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.
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