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.
When most people sign with a publisher for their debut novel, the contract is for two books. This is how I signed with Headline, and it felt pretty good at the time. Getting a contract for something I hadn’t even written from one of the big five is quite the mental endorsement, and injected a bit of confidence when it came to sitting down at my desk in front of a blank screen. Kind of, yeah, I got this. But any confidence I gleaned from having already signed a contract was shattered by the process. Book two was one of the hardest books I will ever write. It was the first time I ever had to work to a deadline, and the first time I was writing with specific people in mind who needed to like the finished product. But with their help and support and some cheer leading along the way, I got there with only one rewrite. But setting out to write book three was something different again, because I was doing so out of contract.
Before getting an agent or publisher, selling one of my books and securing representation was the only thing I ever thought about, and it often felt like an impossible task. I was plagued by questions: Am I writing something that an agent will like? Will this book make it out of the slush pile? Will anybody even read it? I just had no idea. But this time I started writing book three knowing that at least my agent would be looking at it. I started book three knowing that I had already sold two books, so theoretically at least, could sell another. I was starting to write with all the knowledge I had gained from the lessons learnt in writing the previous two. That gave me a sense of freedom to really focus on the crafting of the story, rather than wonder what the hell I was going to do with it once it was written.
And I honestly thought I had learnt my lesson with book two; write the book, and do it only once. Decide on a story and stick to it. Before I began I had the whole story planned out, and I got about 80,000 words in without any problems or questioning myself. I had a near-complete first draft, albeit rough and raggedy. But then the unthinkable happened; I got another idea that was infinitely better. And that raised a dilemma. Should I rewrite book three as well?
So there I was with an almost complete book, no contract, and an unwritten idea that was just begging to come out. Did that mean what I had written was no good? Did it need tossing? I had learnt a lot of lessons writing two books, but it seemed that insight into the value of my writing was not one of them. Stephen King wrote in his memoir, On Writing, that, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Did that mean I should stick to the book I had already written? I wasn’t keen to disobey the master, but I decided against it, shoveled it into a drawer, and set out to rewrite book three.
A couple of weeks later, sitting in London having dinner with my agent, celebrating the fact that book two was finally finished, she tentatively approached the idea of book three. I confessed that yes, it was written, but that I had plans to rewrite it. She must have wondered who the hell she had signed. She asked for five or six polished chapters in order that she might submit to my publisher, but it turns out I couldn’t deliver them. I’ve never been very linear when it comes to writing, and I have to accept that the first draft of anything I write is utter horse shit. Until the final pages are polished, the first chapters are ugly. But that’s OK, because I know that now, and I try not to let it bother me. That’s one of the things I have learnt. So I just kept on going, even when it felt tempting to go back to that book that was already written. Now the new book three is complete, and has been read and edited by my agent with tentative approval. I have completed an edit myself and it’s now back with her.
So are we there yet? I have no idea. Will this book secure me another contract? I have no idea about that either. I have learnt not to second guess what people will think. The market is tough, and I have no idea whether or not there is space for another one of my books. I sure hope there is, because I already have book four planned. The synopsis is probably the easiest I have ever written and I feel really confident about the story that lies ahead. But this time I am also planning a chapter breakdown before I even begin to write the book. Because although there is still so much that I don’t know, what I do know is this; I do not want to write this book twice. But at least I’m feeling confident. So again as I sit down to write the first draft of my next book I'm going to say, yeah, I got this. I think I know what I'm doing. For the time being at least.
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
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.
Busy doesn’t quite cut it. Last week I delivered a synopsis to my agent, revised a second synopsis that I had delivered the week before, and wrote the first chapter of a new book. This wasn’t the ethereal book three I was supposed to be planning, but another book which arose from a conversation I had with my agent that started something along the lines of, ‘You know what I’d really like to write?’, and ended up with me committing to write two books simultaneously. I also finished the first 45,000 words of the expected third book, which I started editing this morning. So much is happening in the day to day order of things it is easy to forget the things going on in the background without my direct input. I remember only when a third party asks how long away it is until the book comes out. The Book. That’s when I remember. My Sister, now only a month away from being published.
This day has been a long time coming. The book first sold to Headline almost eighteen months ago, and it was picked up (along with me) by my agent months before that. I started looking for an agent about three months before I got signed, and started writing My Sister (which had a different title back then which I’m too embarrassed to commit to print) about a year before that. So what’s that? Three years in the making? And now the day is actually tangible. It’s no longer in a couple of years. It’s not next year, either. It’s next month. It’s actually right around the corner, and to be honest, I can’t quite believe it.
But it's not been at all like how people say things go fast when you are enjoying yourself. It hasn’t gone fast at all. It feels like a long time ago that I started writing My Sister, to the point that it almost feels strange to think about a time when I wasn’t writing it, spending my day with these two sisters who can’t seem to catch a break. Back then writing was still a hobby and while I hate that word, that’s what it was. It never felt like that to me, but I did it when I could, outside of working hours, and it didn’t pay the bills. But now it has become a job. There are people waiting on my work, for me to finish on time, and get it right. The deadlines are no longer self imposed. I remember the first time an agent asked to see my manuscript and I knew it wasn’t quite ready. I put in three long days of fifteen hours each for one last run through and lost my voice from reading the whole thing aloud. I thought that was pretty insane back then. Crazy stuff. Now days like those feel increasingly like the norm.
But it’s not just when it's coming out that people want to know. People ask me how I feel about publication being so close. And in all honesty I don’t know what to tell them. I’m excited, yes, but anxious too. I hear of other authors enjoying release day and the hitting the bestseller lists the next day, and that makes me way more nervous than the thought of the impending reviews. I used to be self published so I’m used to people having something to say about my work. If I’m lucky some people will love this book, but I'm ready for the inevitable fact that others will hate it. That’s OK by me. It better be because it's not like I get a choice about what they think. But what I really don’t want is to let down the people who have trusted me and my work.
I think back to the me I was as a writer a few years ago and how life has changed. So many awesome things have happened since then; an agent who said yes (they exist!) and an editor who called me up to discuss the book she’d just bought. I was like a rabbit in the headlights, and was sure she would hang up and wonder what the hell she had done. Artwork and proof copies and nights out in London to ‘meet people’. To chat with people who work for magazines I read, who have copies of my book on their desks. Seriously, like what? And perhaps more than all of that to know that next month there will be an article in the Guardian written by me, giving me a chance to raise awareness about a subject so close to my heart.
I have no idea how to put what I feel about all of this into words, but I’m pretty excited to see what the next month will bring. Just one month until my biggest childhood dream comes true. The strange thing is that I’m pretty sure it can’t top what’s already happened. Just enjoy it, people tell me. So that's what I'll do, It sounds like great advice.
Once a month or so I like to write an update post on here. It’s a great way of keeping on track, looking at what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t. A way of being able to focus in the moment, sit back, and take stock of where I am. It’s also a break from manuscript writing or editing. Plus, I always considered a month isn’t a long time, not really, especially when you do the same thing every day.
But this month has been a long month. There has been a lot going on. My deadline for book two was fast approaching, and my publisher requested to have it sooner than I expected. It wasn’t quite finished, but I learnt the first time round that finished books before editors get them really only exist only in the minds of writers, or perhaps the same dimension as fairies and the Loch Ness Monster. Therefore I hit send, cursed a bit, and have since been crossing my fingers in the hope that it’s OK. Sitting and waiting is hard, but there is nothing else to do. I also heard from the organisers of the London Marathon, and I didn’t get a place this time, but it might be for the best because my training schedule has gone totally kaput. In positive news I’ve moved house, and managed to write over 20,000 words of a new manuscript. Ordinarily I’d be super excited, blasting it all over twitter, GIFs galore. But besides work related tasks and meeting deadlines I’ve also been in the UK for three out of these last four weeks. Normally that would be great, getting to see friends and family and kick around in fallen leaves during the best season that the UK has to offer. Only this time it’s not. I was there because my Dad got cancer.
Working with my agent
From the first discussion over the phone to the first meeting during a trip to the UK, Maddy, my agent has been a great support. When you step into an unknown world for the first time you really do need somebody to hold your hand a little bit and explain the things that are going on. I was really lucky that I found an agent who likes to work editorially, and we did a couple of rounds of edits before we even thought about approaching publishers. They walk you through international accounting, liaise with your editor, and generally champion your cause to all who will listen. It’s been great having somebody who is always in my corner! I would say to anybody who is looking for an agent to make sure you find somebody who you trust. I ended up changing my title, adding new chapters to the book, and even got a new name before approaching publishers. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve got your back. Let them weave their magic.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
Headline In Pre empt for debut thriller
Pre-emp for If You Knew My Sister
Psychological Thriller stirs up rights market
Books Before the Buzz
My Sister book review on writing.iw