**SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES BELOW**
A long time ago, back before I had a publisher and without the benefit of a proper editor, I wrote a book which I self-published. It was an experimental book, and had an unpopular ending. When I wrote the end to that novel I was certain that it was the right one, and couldn’t imagine it any other way. I also wrote that book during a fairly crazy three month period after suffering a seizure which landed me in ITU. My protagonist was experiencing a hard time with her mental health, and I discovered that an unexpected seizure had the ability to shake the sturdiest of foundations. I struggled to get back to normality after that, and writing that book really helped. I was satisfied with how it turned out, but when the reviews started coming in I realised that a lot of people were not.
That’s the thing as a reader or viewer of fiction; we get invested. We start to have expectations and hopes for our characters. I was late to the Game of Thrones party, picking up season one when season two was just wrapping up. I devoured the first two seasons in one weekend (little shout out there to Life Before Kids) and have spent the last eight years waiting for the seasons to air. To say I’m into it, or that I’m a fan, is kind of an understatement. I’ve read all the books, listened to the audio, and I even have a selection of the T-shirts. There is a video of me watching Battle of the Bastards that I pray my husband never shows to anybody. As a lover of fantasy, I was amazed by the spectacle of the show, the intricate world created, and the mega-complex order of things. As a writer I was in awe of the way both books and show were written, the complexities of the dialogues, and the characters interactions. The foreshadowing and prophecies were inspired. But then this week’s episode left me feeling totally bereft. I was never a champion for Cersei, but her death left me feeling empty and disappointed. Not because she was dead; Cersei was always going to die. But I just didn’t expect her to die like that.
As I plot and write books, creating the character arc is massively important. Who are they, and what journey do they go on? What do they want, and what drives them? Questions such as these were the reason why Theon was and will forever be my favourite Thrones character, because his narrative is the best redemption story I have ever seen play out. It felt fitting, and right, that he should die for the family who raised him, the family for whom he had much to atone.
But poor Cersei.
She was the master of the game, wasn’t she? She was the most conniving and scheming of all the characters. She outsmarted them all, even Littlefinger. She was perhaps the one to fear the most. Never once did I cheer for Cersei throughout the whole time I’ve been watching Thrones, not even when she was locked in a cell for a whole season. I did feel for her when she was paraded through the streets during her walk of shame, but still I couldn’t bring myself to hope for retribution on her behalf. But her ending left me feeling that some how she had been let down, that to survive seven seasons in one of the deadliest worlds ever created, only to die under a pile of rubble was less than she deserved. I wanted her to go down with a fight, not a whimper. I also wanted some prophecies to be fulfilled, but it seems that was not meant to be either.
So, if this didn’t cut it for me, what would have made a good ending? What makes for a great character arc or story overall? I always think the best fiction reflects real life, even that which is set in a fantasy world. In Thrones we might be dealing with dragons and zombies, but the struggles of the characters, their feelings and hopes, the things that drive them on, are all real human emotions. They feel like real people. Their lives feel tangible, and thus we feel invested. We want our characters, whether we root for them or not, to fulfil their destiny. Just as we are told to live our lives well, to enjoy the years we have and reach old age without regret, we want our characters to do the same.
There will always be people who disagree on the endings of some of our favourite fiction. Fans like me will always be disappointed at some point, especially when we care so much. Where many people hated the ending of one of my earlier works, other people loved it. One person I remember even now took the time to write to me after she finished the controversial book. She told me that it made her feel less alone at a time when she was experiencing depression. She told me that the story was like reading her own thoughts, and thanked me for making her aware that she wasn’t the only one to experience such things. Where some people hated the end, the fact that it touched people enough to care about it is the best I can ever hope for as a writer. My job is to take people on a journey, and it’s impossible for everybody to experience or enjoy that journey equally.
I have talked about Thrones with as many people as I can find this week, mulling over the good the bad, the successes and the tears. The regrets, both for character and me as a viewer. Perhaps Cersei’s character arc was completed exactly as it was supposed to be. Perhaps dying with the one she loved was the only thing that she truly hoped for. Perhaps at the end she had no regrets. I hope the writers of Thrones don’t either, just as I don’t over the book I wrote that was badly received. I still feel the ending was right. Just like my characters, I only wish to reach the end of my story and feel like it played out exactly as it should. So far, I think I’m doing OK.
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.
The post Christmas period has got to be one of the worst times of the year for feeling good about ourselves. The excitement of the festivities is over, our bank balances are a reality we can’t escape, and the world around us seems concerned with how we are going to improve ourselves in the New Year. People ask what our New Year's Resolution is going to be, as if we need to identify our mistakes from the departing year and see what we need to do better in the year ahead. Losing weight is a typical one, and no doubt somewhere out there is a gym offering twelve months membership for the price of six, which if you’re not a gym person to start with is about eleven months longer than you’re realistically going to need.
I’m a fan of Christmas, and love everything about it, but I’m pretty much the Scrooge of New Year. Christmas is all about coming together with people we love, about nurturing relationships with ourselves and others. New Year on the other hand is about accepting that your relationship with yourself needs work, that ultimately there is something about the material of your life that needs to change. Yes, it’s about self improvement, but only by first accepting that the starting point is ultimately one of inadequacy.
While some people might find this a good starting point and look forward to making a change on the first day of the New Year, a smoker for example who wants use it as a springboard to a healthier life, there is a huge pressure about marking one single day as the turning point for change. It renders all other 364 days of the year as somehow less valuable for taking steps towards a positive shift in your life, as if time is infinite and we can afford to waste it. Mae West once said that you only live once, but that once is enough if you live right, and it’s a good rule to live by. Making every day count. Conversely there are also people who put off making resolutions full stop, as if this somehow frees them from the ties of January 1st. But waiting for New Year to make the change we crave, or making the decision to avoid following your dreams on that day, ultimately means giving ourselves permission to delay chasing the life we really want.
When I was younger I used to enjoy giving myself a challenge on January 1st, making changes as we rang in the New Year. Some of the things I promised myself over the years were that I’d give up smoking, that I’d join a gym, and that I’d write my first novel. Giving up smoking on New Year’s Day, a bank holiday spent socialising in the company of other smokers rendered that resolution moot before I even woke up with the hangover from the last night of the previous year. The gym in January is always packed, and I found myself queuing for the treadmill. I haven't enjoyed being in such close proximity to other peoples' sweat since I spent my youth on the edge of a mosh pit. As for writing in January . . . that was more promising, but still my attempts amounted to nothing more than a few chapters of a badly planned psychological thriller that never really got off the ground.
But since then I have given up smoking. I have found an exercise routine that I enjoy because I’ve made it part of my life. I've written nine novels, if you count my self-published work and pending manuscripts. But none of these things happened because of promises I made to myself on New Year’s Eve. Instead, it’s because I made the changes to do the things I wanted because they couldn’t wait. I began working towards them when they were right for me, and when not doing them was no longer an option. They stopped being resolutions, and instead became dreams of a better life – as I saw it - and things I couldn’t live without.
So now as I look back on the year passed I use it as a chance to see not where I’m going wrong or what I need to change, but as a chance to see what I’ve achieved over the last twelve months and take stock of where I’m at with my aims. To be kind to myself and be thankful of what I’ve done and for what I have. And I hope what I find is that there is not some pending wish that I have left hanging. But if there is, I probably don’t want it enough to chase it anyway, so I can give myself a break and stop worrying about it. After all, there’s always next year.
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.