For the last couple of years, I’ve looked forward to the publication of The Bookseller magazine each week. In the same way that scientific publications made me feel part of the wider cardiological community when I was working as a physiologist, the publication of a magazine dedicated to the publishing world, creates a sense of being part of the bigger picture. Writing is a lonely, often isolating vocation, and personally doing it so far away from a central hub like London, means that The Bookseller offers an opportunity for insight that is not to be overlooked.
The magazine and articles published on the website provide a snapshot into activity behind the scenes, such as mergers, takeovers, and jobs. But it also represents the wider publishing experience for a writer. Every time I log in it seems there are deals taking place, new six figure pre-empts being offered, and titles celebrating sales in a gazillion territories. Certainly, this idea is supported by figures from The Bookseller issue dated 22nd May 2020. In an article concerning titles moved from summer to autumn publication secondary to the outbreak of Coronavirus, there will be a total of 10,069 new titles released this September. My next book is not due to be published until November 2020, in hardback in the US, where I suspect there will be even more titles fighting for shelf space. But in all honesty, when I saw the UK figures for September, my first thought was that I was glad that my book wasn't one of them. Over ten thousand books in a month. I had no idea there could be so many. Yet, in the same breath, I was already reminding myself that November is unlikely to be that different. So, if this is close to the average number of books being released each month, give or take a bit, how on earth does a book go on to find coverage in the press, garner reviews, or find its way into the hands of readers?
Of course, some big titles will have the weight of a massive publicity campaign behind them, but the sheer volume of new books released each month means that it is impossible to provide such support for all the books that are scheduled for release. Other books will benefit from word of mouth, Goodreads and Netgalley reviews, and perhaps a favourable thematic association with one of the big names. But many books will struggle. Perhaps some of these titles are coming from smaller houses, where even the survival of the house itself is at stake. So in an environment where there are so many books stacked against so few places on the bestseller lists, how is it that we are supposed to measure success?
When my first book was released back in 2017, it was as a trade paperback in the UK. I had little idea of what to expect, having never experienced a publishing day before. Back when I was self publishing it was easy to celebrate because there was nobody relying on it but me. I knew the way the market worked on Amazon, and knew not to expect a rush in sales on day one. On my first traditional publishing day I spent the day in a bit of a slump. I lost count of the hours I spent on twitter, thanking people for retweets and positive comments. I watched Amazon rankings until my eyes hurt, refreshing the page, wondering when they would climb. I got flowers from my agent and publisher, and that was nice. But the overall experience was a bit of a let-down. It felt like Christmas day, but one where you wake up with a hangover, where your presents are substandard, and where even though you play the right games and eat the right food, by the end of the day, you’re just sort of pleased it’s all over.
The catalyst for my slump in mood came in the form of an email from my publisher. It was upbeat and full of congratulations, but there was a simple, and clear indication that the sales were not as expected. It wasn’t going to be in Waterstones, and we were waiting for the MMPB for the supermarkets. My sister in law then text me to say she couldn’t find it on her high street either. So, I had a book out, there had been quite a bit of fuss, including some great mentions in magazines, and yet it didn’t seem to have done the most important thing of all; sell. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, as I had no precedent against which to judge it, but I know the sales reported didn’t reach my aspirations. In short, even though nobody said it, and even though the reviews were pretty good, I felt kind of like a failure.
Without much conscious thought on the matter, I had decided that I was going to judge the success of the book like the publishing house did, which is to say by sales figures alone. But I wonder now in that week, just how many books were released. Should I have expected with such naïve certainty that my debut novel would strike a note on the bestseller list? As a writer looking for a long term career, and enough money to live off without having to get another job, selling well is essential. But is it the only metric of success?
It took for the release of the paperback, in both the UK and several foreign territories before I decided that the book wasn’t a failure after all. I received an email from a reader in the Czech Republic which changed the narrative I had been telling myself. She had just read the Czech edition, and contacted me to say that the story was a reflection of her own life. After being abandoned by her mother as a child, they had recently reconnected, and she had found the courage to ask the necessary questions about her past after reading my book. This moment felt much bigger and much more important than a place on a list, at least on a personal level. This very outcome was the inspiration behind writing the book in the first place, knowing that I would soon begin my own journey with adoption not long after the book was published. After this email, although sales mattered, and still matter, this reader's message was a reminder that the stories we write are not sold to our readers for industry accolades and financial compensation alone.
Writers write in order to connect, to share stories and ideas, and promote conversation. In this instance, my book sparked a very important conversation, which I know will always remain a highlight in my career. We write because people need stories, a lot more than any writer needs a position on a chart. Perhaps never more so than now, when we are all so distanced from those we love, stories allow us to share parts of ourselves with people all over the world. They bring us closer together, and help us understand the time in which we live. This is why stories from BAME and LGBT+ writers must also be told by those qualified to tell them, and why barriers to the publishing world for those writers must be brought down.
So, this begs the question that when my next book is released, do I not care about chart success? Don’t be silly, of course I do. May Little Wishes sail into the lofty position of being a chart topping bestseller. Both in the UK and the US, and everywhere else it sells. But now I know well enough not to expect it. To celebrate the launch irrespective of sales. Because now I also appreciate that being read, connecting with the lives of readers, can be just as rewarding as finding a place in the charts.
I have heard it said that some writers do not really like the act of writing, that the first draft is just a hurdle to get over before the real fun begins. Although this is not how I feel about writing my first drafts, I can understand it. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. Of course it’s all fun in the beginning when your characters are fresh and doing exactly what you intended them to, but soon enough you reach the wastelands of Act Two, and even something as simple as getting from A to B seems like a giant challenge. That for me is part of the allure, but only because I am prepared to accept one vitally important covenant; the first draft of anything is going to be utterly shite.
And this is why I think some writers hate draft one, because they simply can’t stand to see the ugliness of all those raw words, strung together in their most unapologetic form. They prefer them crafted and honed. But I don’t think draft one is about prose or poetic sentences that people are going to highlight on their Kindle or start Goodreads discussions over. The first draft is about getting the skeleton of the story in order, or at least on the page so that it can be edited at a later date. It doesn’t matter if it sounds ugly or if some of the sentences are clunky. It’s OK that it’s a mess; the time for self-criticism comes later.
As a creative, self-criticism is my arch enemy, and the quickest route to stalling. I discovered it a long time ago, when I was still at school. Back then I was quite a good potter, and used to enjoy sculpting metaphorical structures based on dreams and Greek mythology. But when the time came to transition from GCSE to A-level the option to study pottery alone was no longer available: I had to also choose graphics or fine art. I hadn’t used a paintbrush for years, at least not for anything other than gluing together slabs of semi-dry clay. How was I supposed to compete with the other artists who were already painters?
So I went into those first lessons with a degree of self-doubt. Everybody seemed infinitely better than me, even before I had seen anybody’s work. But it was only because I was critical of myself, talked myself into doubting my abilities, and that set me at a distinct disadvantage.
The beginning was not the time to worry about what my paintings looked like. I should have been slapping as much paint onto canvases as I could until I had something to show for it. Instead I hung back, always a bit hesitant with my strokes. It culminated in me sitting through my exams painting the same clouds over and over, and barely finishing the composition. In short, I screwed it up. There is a place for self-criticism, only that wasn’t it.
It wasn’t until I began writing that I realised self-criticism could also be my friend. Back in the early days following the completion of my first manuscript, and right around the time I received my first set of agent rejections, I decided to self-publish. I created a cover, got the book ‘edited’, and before long my work was lose in the world. I was pretty proud of it, despite the fact in hindsight I can see it was lacking in just about every way. And it was all fun and games to begin with when friends and family and other well-meaning writers with whom I’d connected online were posting their 4 and 5 star reviews. But of course it didn’t take long for somebody to rip it apart. And while that hurt to start with, I realized that maybe I could use the negative reviews to my advantage. Here, self-criticism helped me get a better handle on where I was going wrong, and helped me work through some of my bad-habits when it came to writing. It also pushed me into hiring a book jacket designer, and gave me the impetus to take myself seriously.
I am just setting out to write my fourth psychological thriller. I know the score here; knock the first draft out as soon as possible, because it’s only then that the real work begins. But I am also beginning another project, something that is totally out of my comfort zone, and something that is deeply personal to me. I started a few weeks ago, and at first I could feel that same hesitancy in my writing that I could feel at school as a painter. Perhaps it was because the genre is different and I don’t know the tropes as well. Perhaps because in many ways this is my father’s story, and therefore it feels too precious to mess up, too important to leave those raw words and emotions on the page. But I’m beginning to find my groove and it feels good. I just have to remember to accept that the first draft of this new project most certainly will not be.
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.
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.
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.
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 a couple of months since the publication of My Sister as an e-book and trade paperback, and it's been an important and busy time. So much seems to have been happening, most of which has been behind the scenes stuff. I've been working to finish book two, whose provisional title I will keep secret just a little bit longer, and get that sent back to my agent. I managed to do that by last Friday, and the following Monday she gave me the go ahead to send it over to my editor. Besides the day your editor tells you the edits are finished, there is no better feeling in the world. It's a very important landmark in the process of the manuscript becoming a book!
Also I am back to working on book three which feels great. I had already written a rough first draft of the intended book three late last year. But then I had a fortunate or unfortunate moment of inspiration depending on the way you look at shelving 80,000 written words. I came up with a completely different story. I looked at it as on opportunity to run with what I thought was a great idea and decided to start afresh. I guess some ideas just come to you and you feel they need to be taken forward. I'm about 80% done on the new project, and it is really starting to come together. Although I haven't quite got the first draft completed, I am going back and forth making changes, developing characters, and really starting to put flesh on bones. It's the best part of the writing process for me, and a lot of fun. Hopefully I will be finished on this draft within the next few weeks.
But My Sister has also been doing me proud. It has been released in France (Sisters) from the publishing house Bragelonne and I recently visited their headquarters in the beautiful city of Paris. It was great to see how positive they are, and also that they are such a supportive team. Meanwhile in the UK it is undergoing a price promotion this month, available for 99p across all platforms. This has resulted in a lot of increased sales. Across Amazon My Sister seems to be ranking consistently well, despite it stubbornly refusing to break into the top 100 suspense category (currently #106), but I did hear that yesterday it made it into the number two spot for the whole of the iBooks chart in the UK which was absolutely wonderful. It was also in great company, nestled between J.P. Delaney's The Girl Before, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Anybody who has read my bio will know just what that means to me. All in all a great first two months.
So a massive thanks to everybody who has picked up a copy so far. But for now I need to get back to book three and try to get it finished before book two lands back on my desk in a few weeks time!
You can pick up your copy of My Sister for your device here.
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.