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 any decent writer has said, I love to read. Besides on trains or in queues or during the lost hours at the hairdressers, my reading time is usually the evenings. The mornings constitute my work time, afternoons are dedicated to my daughter when she comes home from nursery, so books get whatever time is left after dinner. But when I am reading or editing my own manuscript prior to delivery I find it very difficult to focus on other books. It’s a combination of being tired from reading – yes, I know, I didn’t used to think that was a thing either – and wanting to stay focussed on only one story, namely the one I am trying to produce. So during the two weeks prior to manuscript delivery I tend to watch more TV in the evenings than at any other time in the year. If I can binge watch a new series, even better.
So last week as I worked to deliver on a deadline I spiralled into what can only be described as total obsession with a Netflix show called Money Heist (originally La Case de Papel). My husband got started first, watched half of the first episode with Greek subtitles because the show is in Spanish. Now I read Greek, but it turns out Spanish people talk really fast, and my Greek lexicon doesn’t stretch to criminality at the national mint. But it looked interesting so a quick shift into English subtitles (I can’t do the dubbing, even though it was very well done) gave me a chance to watch, and it took only minutes before I was hooked.
It’s fair to say that the rest of the evenings that week are a blur. We agreed upon on a dose of three to four episodes a night until it was done, and soon enough my first and last thoughts of the day concerned the success of the heist. The Spanish word Puta (bitch) began to pepper our conversations, from expressing any level of discontent to general interaction. For example, Puta, pass the salt. Puta fetch me a toilet roll; it was all very gender neutral. It’s true to say now that it’s over that I might be a little bit in love with the Professor, the brains behind the whole thing, and I am still humming a communist Italian revolutionary song used in the show on a daily basis. Ciao bella, Ciao bella, ciao ciao ciao.
You might ask where my life and normal personality went during that time, but for that week I lived and breathed another life, that of a robber involved in a heist for which I was totally invested in the success of the operation. At times I cried. I empathised with the characters. I cheered their successes and detested the police. Of course you’re robbing a bank, I thought at one point. What other choice did you have? In real life I’m the kind of person who will reverse a couple of times to make sure I am equally positioned between two parking lines to give my fellow citizens a chance to open their doors. If you live in Cyprus you will understand that is not the norm. But you get the point; I’m law abiding and fairly considerate. But for one joyous week I was rooting for the crooks, and any beating or gunshots or anarchic terror inflicted on the innocent hostages seemed to me entirely reasonable. And that is for me what good fiction is all about.
Somehow, I could watch this show and still work on my book during the day, so that was a winning combination. But there is a lot of talk about how bad for us binge-watching TV really is, and there is no doubt this is true if it becomes a continuous habit. I have even banned screen time for my almost two-year-old because I know it negatively affects her behaviour. So why did I let myself get so carried away? Because getting lost in a piece of brilliant fiction every now and again is a wonderful experience. It’s an escape into another world in which we get the chance to live vicariously, in lives so different to ours. Whether it’s books or television, I think the effect is the same. Yes there is a negative side to it if we use it as a tool of avoidance of real life problems, but fiction has the potential to entertain and make us happier. It is powerful. Connecting with wonderful characters helps us build empathy and provides us a chance to view the world in new ways. This is one of the reasons why I love writing so much. To have the chance to create these worlds for people is both a joy and a privilege.
There’s another season of Money Heist slated for 2019, but no specific release date yet. Hopefully that means it’s some way off because I need to begin a new manuscript soon if I am to keep on track. For my own sake I hope it will release in the later half of 2019. But before that there is also the little matter of Game of Thrones to deal with. I have three months before that’s due to begin. That’s not all that long for a full first draft when you don’t even know what you want to write. I suppose I better get to it. Time for another binge.
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.
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
Once a month or so I like to write an update post on here. It’s a great way of keeping on track, looking at what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t. A way of being able to focus in the moment, sit back, and take stock of where I am. It’s also a break from manuscript writing or editing. Plus, I always considered a month isn’t a long time, not really, especially when you do the same thing every day.
But this month has been a long month. There has been a lot going on. My deadline for book two was fast approaching, and my publisher requested to have it sooner than I expected. It wasn’t quite finished, but I learnt the first time round that finished books before editors get them really only exist only in the minds of writers, or perhaps the same dimension as fairies and the Loch Ness Monster. Therefore I hit send, cursed a bit, and have since been crossing my fingers in the hope that it’s OK. Sitting and waiting is hard, but there is nothing else to do. I also heard from the organisers of the London Marathon, and I didn’t get a place this time, but it might be for the best because my training schedule has gone totally kaput. In positive news I’ve moved house, and managed to write over 20,000 words of a new manuscript. Ordinarily I’d be super excited, blasting it all over twitter, GIFs galore. But besides work related tasks and meeting deadlines I’ve also been in the UK for three out of these last four weeks. Normally that would be great, getting to see friends and family and kick around in fallen leaves during the best season that the UK has to offer. Only this time it’s not. I was there because my Dad got cancer.
Working with my agent
From the first discussion over the phone to the first meeting during a trip to the UK, Maddy, my agent has been a great support. When you step into an unknown world for the first time you really do need somebody to hold your hand a little bit and explain the things that are going on. I was really lucky that I found an agent who likes to work editorially, and we did a couple of rounds of edits before we even thought about approaching publishers. They walk you through international accounting, liaise with your editor, and generally champion your cause to all who will listen. It’s been great having somebody who is always in my corner! I would say to anybody who is looking for an agent to make sure you find somebody who you trust. I ended up changing my title, adding new chapters to the book, and even got a new name before approaching publishers. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve got your back. Let them weave their magic.
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