As I begin a new year I always liked to make an effort to look back on the previous year, but never resolved to make any New Year’s resolutions. I have always thought them a total waste of time. How many people join a gym in January, only to end up paying a year of subscription fees for no more than a handful of visits? Nope, I didn’t want to be that sucker. I am a long-time subscriber to the Start Now mantra; I believed that if I wanted something badly enough, I’d do it before the first of January of the incoming year.
I don’t know whether it’s age, being a (fairly) new parent, or whether there’s an incoming full moon to which I can attribute blame, but this year I felt differently. As the year was drawing to a close I felt myself wanting to make resolutions for change. It wasn’t that I got anything particularly wrong in 2018, but still I felt there was room for a reset, and the need for some updating when it came to my priorities.
Parenthood, I have learned, is the most humbling of experiences. What you think you need soon becomes a thing open for debate. Take sleep for example. I quite liked it to be honest, but we have fallen somewhat out of love of late, and the truth is I have a daughter whose a pretty good sleeper. What about ‘me time’? The less said about that the better. I don’t even do the unmentionables in private anymore. And as for ego, that literally packs it’s bags and walks out of the door the moment you arrive home with a baby. I do things now that I would never have dreamed I would do as a parent, because yes, I was one of those single people who rolled her eyes at screens on the table during dinner, and often professed that I would never allow my child to eat food in the supermarket before it had been purchased. Now I realise you just do whatever it takes, and we always leave a trail of breadcrumbs as we move through the aisles.
So where do priorities come into all of this, especially for somebody like me working from home. Until September last year I worked when my child slept. It was a challenge now when I look back, and by the time summer arrived I was tired of the daily battle to increase word count or focus on edits. Nursery recreated the working day for me, and that helped me establish a sense of routine again. But still, even though I suddenly had an extra six or seven hours a day at my disposal, somehow, I still always felt as if I was chasing my tail. I couldn’t move forwards because my priorities were all over the place. I didn’t really know what I wanted from my time.
This understanding made me look at my life and want to strip it back. I got excited about the Kon Marie method and promptly delivered 50% of all our household belongings to the charity shop, along with what was probably more like 80% of my wardrobe. They were knee jerk reactions, and the truth is that the capsule wardrobe idea was a failure; a pair of white jeans on a summer holiday in Rome soon brought the reality of that idea into alarming clarity.
In stripping back my life I realised my priorities were less about possessions and clutter and more about values. What did I truly want from my now limited time? I wanted to write. I wanted the time to read. I realised I cared less about a new television series than I did the ability to enjoy reading two books in a week. I wanted to sleep for more than five hours a night, and find the sense of calm that was missing from my daily life. I wanted the time to connect with readers, one of the main reasons why I started writing in the first place.
In the weeks before Christmas I began a programme of meditation. I’m doing it every night, and I really think it helps with being calm and organised, and cope if the day eventually implodes. I started turning off the TV late at night and have since read three books in as many weeks. And on the first of January I began my first New Year’s resolution; keeping a goal-setting and gratitude journal on a daily basis. Sounds like hocus pocus, but I really think he helps me stay on track when it comes to working towards my priorities. And out of the blue today I received the loveliest email which further put everything into perspective. A reader emailed me to say they had read My Sister and that she really connected with the character Irini. She told me that because of reading my book she found the courage to open up to the parents from whom she had once been estranged and had begun asking for answers as to why they had abandoned her when she was a child.
When I set out to write My Sister I was thinking of my own future child that I wished to adopt, hoping to demonstrate that sometimes unthinkable actions like their own abandonment might hide logical explanations for difficult truths. Placing a child for adoption to the outsider seems like the most unthinkable decision in the world, but if the option to keep that child puts them at risk, perhaps seeking a new future for that child is the safest option. This feedback from my reader is more valuable to me than any number of sales; to have connected with somebody in such a way, to help them find a route to move forward and define their priorities in life is the highest of privileges. If I never sold another copy of My Sister again, writing it will now always have been worthwhile.
Realising how I want to spend my time, knowing my own priorities as I step into this new year has become my resolution. I know I want to live more quietly, with less, which will ultimately I believe give me more. I want to focus on work to a greater extent, read with greater immersion, and continue along my path of meditation and reflection. And while these are all things I knew I wanted before the turn of a new year, still I didn’t really begin to seek them out. I realise now that sometimes it takes a trigger, whether that is the turn of a new year or connecting with a character in a book, to know what our real priorities are. When I look back on 2019, I want to know I did everything I could to live my life right. I suppose on some level, that’s all any of us want.
Last Thursday My Sister was released as a paperback. It was a great feeling to finally reach this point after such a long wait. The original manuscript was sold to my publisher back in 2015, and since then it’s been a steady process of editing, waiting for artwork, and biding my time until the release date approached. The original release was in the form of an eBook and trade paperback last April. I remember thinking that was the day upon which everything was riding, that a failure for the book to do well at that time meant it was all over for me as a writer. But fast forward twelve months, and I found myself once again feeling as if the latest release day held the key to the future.
The night before the trade paperback release I barely slept, then woke up with the jitters wondering what exactly would happen in the following twenty four hours. In reality I received a couple of bunches of flowers, about 100 twitter messages, and a sales order message from my editor. I couldn’t concentrate to do any writing for most of the day, and everything seemed to pass by in a bit of a blur without anything much really happening. This time around, despite my nerves about how the book would perform, my release day turned out to be a little different.
This time around I knew the score in advance; my editor had notified me about sales orders prior to release. That came as a huge relief because knowing that certain places like Tesco and Waterstones had placed an order, and that My Sister would be positioned in airports and train stations with W.H. Smiths, gave me the certainty that the general public would at least have the opportunity to find the book. Previously the sales channels were dominated by online vendors, and that always makes visibility more difficult, and therefore spontaneous purchases unlikely. Side note; the first person to send me a picture of My Sister on a sun lounger gets an extra special place in my heart.
Another difference this time related to my use of social media, which has been scaled right back since the arrival of my daughter. Yes, I’m still tweeting and I have lists created so that theoretically at least I don’t miss anything important, but the reality is I don’t check my accounts every day. Instantaneous responses are also pretty much a thing of the past, unless you strike the golden hours and tweet me during nap time.
The reality of the matter is that I spent this release day nursing a teething baby and taking her to the hospital for routine checks. I didn’t manage to organise Facebook advertising until the early evening, and I only checked my Amazon rank once. A year ago once an hour would have been the epitome of restraint. I did receive a lovely bunch of flowers from my editor once I arrived home, and only after the florist had already tired to deliver on two separate occasions earlier on in the day. It was only as the evening drew in that it really started to sink in that My Sister had been released for the final time, and that all across the UK it was visible to thousand of shoppers.
What has happened since release has been remarkable, and something new to me as an author. I know my publisher is happy so far, and that is obviously a huge relief. But hearing from people whom I have never met, telling me they loved my book, that they would like it to be one of their book club choices, and sending me pictures of the shelves in their local store has all been really exciting. It’s been great to receive so many messages from people around the world who are enjoying reading it. And in a week that was pretty good for book sales according to data from across the board (total consumer market value in excess of 30 million last week according to The Bookseller) I am just feeling very privileged to have my own little share of a rather large pie.
The stress that I endured the first time around, including the worry that if it didn't go so well I might get dropped by my publisher, while potentially valid, didn't get me anywhere. This time around, not being at my desk and barely even thinking about release day until my daughter was asleep made little difference to the success of the book. Sometimes stress does us a favour, helps get us through a challenge like a looming deadline or a difficult life event. But most of the time stress simply hinders our enjoyment of what might otherwise be a wonderful experience. So when my next book is released for the first time I intend to enjoy it for what it is; an opportunity to succeed, rather than an opportunity to stress over the very potential for failure.
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.