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.
Before I actually sat down to write my first novel I had long lamented my dream of becoming a writer. I did what most hopefuls do and thought about it a lot, imagining the very best case scenario of how my writing career might develop out of thin air. Before I had even written a sentence of a novel I had considered the publishing deal, the bestselling hardback, and what it might feel like to have my story optioned by Scorsese, because yes, I thought that whatever I might decide to write when I actually sat down to do it would obviously be that good.
But it was at the time little more than wishful thinking because aside from harbouring the dream to write and occasionally telling friends that I was planning to write a novel when I’d had a few too many shandies, I wasn’t actually doing any writing. What occupied my mind was the Hollywood dream of what it meant to be a writer, ambling about my beach house barefoot in an oversized jumper – think Sharon Stone’s character of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct, only without the murders. Nothing set in reality. So the required leap from not writing at all to the vision of what I thought it meant to be a writer was ridiculous. It was one giant leap too far, because even if I had been writing every day, most writers don’t have that sort of NASA-propelled acceleration to the top of the food chain. In order to write I had to get my head out of the clouds, my ass on a chair, and my feet firmly on the ground.
When I eventually took that step I realised that it was going to take a lot of work to go from a blank screen with a word count of zero, to a fully edited novel that would make it through the first round of agent rejections. It seemed almost insurmountable, and needed a serious level of commitment that I wasn’t sure I had. So I chose to look at it in bite sized chunks rather than as a whole. I only ever thought about the work I had to do each day, rather than the eighty thousand or so words I still had left to find. And I still do that now because it makes life easier. Plus, you soon realise that writing a novel takes a lot of time. How much is up to you. Perhaps you are the kind of writer whose first draft will take less than a month to write, such as Rebus author Ian Rankin who is fueled by solitude and coffee. Maybe you benefit from a slower process, embarking on the kind of project that spans a few years, where the completion of the draft requires time for life and contemplation. It doesn’t really matter what you need or how long it takes. The only important decision at this stage is to sit down and do it.
When I first took the leap from post-it note scribbler walking the corridors of a hospital to dedicated hopeful at the computer each night I had no idea what kind of journey I was undertaking. I didn’t know whether or not I would be a fast or slow writer, poetic or snappy, happy or miserable. Most aspiring writers imagine themselves in a certain style or genre, and I was no different – a cross between Stephen King and Alice Sebold perhaps - but the theoretical version of yourself as a writer might be quite different to what translates to the page. I have said before that the first novel I wrote wasn’t up to much, and my idea of editing was up to even less. But still what I produced surprised me. Inspired me even. But nothing about that mattered; not how long or took, how bad it was, nor the style. Because what shifted when I decided to sit down that first night in front of my computer instead of the television was my mindset. It was that change in my attitude that would take me from a person who finished reading a book to a person who finished writing one. The decision to stop hesitating, the decision to take the risk, and more importantly than anything else the decision to take my writing seriously was the step that drove me into the career which I now love.
I had long dreamed of writing as a job, of getting to do it every day, with or without the beach house. I was never very sure about my chosen ‘safe’ career as a scientist, and almost gave it up a number of times. I suppose fear of failure held me back; of failing at being a scientist, and failing at having any clue how to go about doing what I really wanted to do. I had attended a school that was very driven when it came to studying at university, courses that drove students into real jobs. So a writer might have been OK if I had wanted to be a journalist. But novel writer? Perhaps I’d like to be an English teacher instead they suggested. I didn’t.
It’s true that teenage dreams are often over ambitious, and more often still not based in any reality recognisable to others. I thought my dream of being a writer was a bit of a joke, so pretty much kept it to myself. People don’t take unlikely dreams seriously, enjoy scoffing at them and the perceived naivety of those people who dare to wish for something more. But that’s OK. Because once you’ve grown you don’t need anybody else to take your dreams seriously on your behalf. You only need to take them seriously yourself in order to make them a reality.
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.