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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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