I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that each year when it came around my family watched the London Marathon. I’m not sure why we were so keen on it as none of us were that sporty, not at all in fact, but without fail we watched and cheered as people set off, and then again as they crossed the finishing line. I remember, without any real concept of what a marathon was, feeling a sense of wonderment over these people who had been running through the capital, decked out in costumes, looking absolutely shattered as they crossed the finishing line with their arms raised triumphantly in the air. And with the absolute naivety of childhood ambition, and without any clue as to what it might take, I said to myself that one day I would be one of those people.
While I am still to run any kind of marathon, or indeed be anywhere close to being capable of doing so, running has been a part of my life for well over a decade now. From the time I first joined a gym and had my session with the personal trainer I knew that there was only one machine for me. Running, whether it’s outside on the road, or on a treadmill in the gym, is always my exercise of choice. There is something about the structure of a run that lends itself well to my personality, a person who loves competition and yet simultaneously hates to lose. Because with a run, while there is no winning as such, there is also no losing. The battle for the run is fought against oneself, from the moment the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, to the relief of crossing the finish line, whether that’s on The Mall, in Central Park, or through my own front gate. Any competition is found within the mentality I bring to each time I decide to lace up my trainers and head outside. Each corner I turn, each kilometre I track, is a decision in the direction of success. But when it came to hills, that was always a different story.
For years I avoided the hills. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to improve, but because simply I found it really, really hard. After running my set distance only to be faced with a massive incline before the finish was always my worst nightmare. I always needed to prepare myself for it, and if ever I tried a new route and found an unexpected hill, I would often divert for the easier path. But when I moved to my current house, located in a valley and surrounded by hills, in order to run I had little option but to face a hill both at the beginning and at the end of my run.
For a long time I struggled. It was a problem of both mental and physical fitness. Before that I’d schedule my runs along an easy coastline, so I wasn’t conditioned for the challenge. It took weeks before I could ascend the hill that left my house without having to stop. I hated every one of those runs. Surely there had to be a way to make it easier?
Just like anything, running doesn’t become easier by taking a magic pill or by wishing for it before you go to sleep. I only noticed my abilities improving when I committed to getting out at least every other day. But the physical commitment was only one component. My mental state also needed to change.
At first, I faced every run with a sort of resignation. Kind of, here we go again, almost as if somebody was forcing me into it. I looked at the hill as if it was my enemy, and I was setting myself up to fail each and every time. But halfway through a run a few months ago, when faced with an unexpected hill after deciding to push my distance on a new route, I changed my mentality. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and very much happened organically, as if mentally I’d had enough of being beaten before I’d started. A thought rose within me, and it totally changed the game.
There is no hill.
Now, of course, there was a hill, and I wasn’t suddenly in The Matrix. And the hill in question was a beast. But I told myself it wasn’t there, and I nailed it. I was exhausted, felt sick until I got home, but I did it. And the next time I left my house I told myself the same thing, there is no hill, and no lie that run was easier still.
I was thinking about this today because I am facing a challenge like this in my writing. I have 40,000 words of a new manuscript written, and 17,000 of another story that I’d started before that, which I shelved when I wasn’t sure it was right. And now, after another challenging day writing/editing, I feel like this second, 40,000 word manuscript isn’t right either. I feel like I’m writing for the sake of it, not sure whether I believe in the characters or the story. And yet that 17,000 word manuscript that I shelved keeps calling to me. I just read its prologue, and know that ultimately, it’s better. It tells a story that I care about in a way my newer manuscript does not. Yet is it the right genre? Perhaps not. Could it become the story I want to tell? I think perhaps it could.
Right now I feel like I have a huge hill in front of me, and none of my previous experience feels as if it has conditioned me appropriately to tackle it. I know that somewhere in the words I’ve already written there is the story I want to tell, but perhaps right now, neither of those manuscripts are doing just that. But just like when I was training myself for my running, I have to find a way to where it becomes easier. I guess I’ll just have to keep telling myself the same mantra in order to get the job done; this might go on to become my first marathon, but there is absolutely, definitely, no hill.
The idea of mindfulness is something that I consider most days. As a concept it seems to have gained a certain mystical celebrity over the last few years. It takes only a limited exposure to social media to understand that there is a group of people who seem to have achieved a higher state of awareness that we should all be searching for when we are not working or binging on Netflix. But yet, in a life when we all seem to be striving for more, pushing ourselves at work and in the gym, and making sure our Insta feed is as perfect as we wish our lives were, that same enlightened bunch of people are telling us that living with less is the new more. Some of us, myself included, go out of our way to consume this message, voluntarily filling our feed with images of clear surfaces and capsulated wardrobes. The truth is, I am a fully signed up member of the less is more club. Even now as I sit at my desk, I’m looking at the shelves to my left and wondering which books I can get rid of without too much trouble. But if having less stuff is supposed to make us happy, how are we supposed to know what to replace it with once it’s gone?
It’s been a long time since I took what I would call a proper holiday. And by that, I mean a good seven nights in a nice hotel, where somebody cooks a selection of breakfasts and pops in before you sleep to turn down your sheets. Last year, with a small daughter who had a penchant for eating sand, we didn’t take a relaxing holiday. So this year, joined by friends, we checked into a nice place with a decent buffet, sun-loungers a plenty, and a programme for aqua gym with some very enthusiastic entertainers. Beforehand I had that true holiday feeling, that excitement the night before of an impending trip that I had been anticipating for months. Now, sitting at my desk on my first day back at work, I really do feel ready to go. Because on that holiday, without any of life’s daily interruptions, I did find something in that space created once material possessions and daily routine were left behind. When I took this photo, waiting for Leli to wake up in the car, I was parked on a beach with no phone or 4G signal. Not even any WiFi. It was an alien feeling, used as I am to being connected. What was it that I was missing out on for that half an hour? Nothing, not really. It felt good to be there, alone, and totally quiet from the rest of the world. So instead of what I was missing out on, the question should really be, what was it that I found?
My love affair with minimalism has long been a feature in my life. Even before I moved into my first home I was certain that a space without things or door handles was the way I wanted to live. And yet throughout my twenties and soon-to-depart thirties, I lost my way a number of times. Six months, maybe even a year could go by without buying any new clothes, and then I would find myself at the mall in a fug of reaction spending. I’d be lured by sales, gadgets, and essential equipment for activities I was unlikely to stick with. It is almost as if I was uncomfortable in the place I had chosen for myself, uncertain whether a minimalist lifestyle was actually right for me. And these boomerang behaviours occurred in various other parts of my life too, like organising my clothes and cleaning my house as if I was practicing a religion, only for a single object left on the side to begin a decline into a mess that could have got me onto TLC. Reading ten books in a month and then nothing for three. Last year I built a capsule wardrobe, only to spend most of this year spending to replace things I’d thrown out. It seems that although I know what I want, I have never yet quite found the balance. So is that perhaps what I’m supposed to be searching for in the place of things?
Returning from my holiday I would say that balance is the closest way of describing what I feel. I feel realigned with the things I want, my hopes, and plan for the future. With all the things I need to do for work. And so I suppose by definition what I am also saying is that before my holiday I must have felt, if not unbalanced, the absence of it. In fact, a couple of months ago I secured a new book deal, and two foreign rights’ deals, and yet somehow didn’t find the time to celebrate that. I didn’t even write about it on my blog, even though it was what I had been working towards professionally for the best part of twelve months. If there isn’t the time, or space in life to celebrate those sorts of achievements, what is it that I’m doing with my time?
And so, perhaps in all my efforts to be mindful and clutter free, that is what I’m really searching for; not balance as such, but the time to find it. When I look around my house and see piles of stuff, what I see are demands on my time to clear them away and organise them. When I look in my wardrobe and feel overwhelmed by a choice of what to wear, it’s time that I’m losing while I try on ten different things. Time that I could have spent doing something that is important to me. When I don’t manage to celebrate a new book deal, it’s not the will or excitement I’m lacking, but time that has been lost elsewhere, eaten up by a task that I care about less. After my daughter arrived in my life, I used to think she was the reason that I no longer had time for the other things that mattered to me. Although that might have been true in the first instance, because let’s face it, first time parenthood is a task no human is ever truly prepared for, I don’t think it counts as an excuse anymore. I’m the adult, and I make the rules, at least fifty percent of the time. So surely it’s up to me to organise us in a way that makes us both happy and that leaves space for the things we truly enjoy.
As I move forward with the new book deal, and the process of writing another as yet uncontracted manuscript, I’m going to try to remember this idea when I think of what it means to me to be mindful. When all the clutter is gone, what I’m left with is time. And instead of trying to fill this reclaimed time with new things and expansive to-do lists, or load my daughter’s programme up with new activities to keep her entertained, perhaps what I should be doing instead is simply enjoying the time we have together. Surely, minimalist or not, there can be no better way to live my life than that.
About two months ago I came up with an idea for a new book. It arrived a bit earlier than was expected or required as I was nowhere near finished with the book I was writing at the time. Usually an idea comes to me as I am working on my final edits, almost as if my conscious and subconscious are working in unison, dishing out a new idea idea when I need to move on. But this time it came in so hard that I almost stopped writing the book I was working on. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to hold off, and got that book wrapped up first.
Ideas for new books come to me in various stages of completion. Some charade as fully formed characters, others as snippets that need a lot of fleshing out. I’ve heard it said before that one good idea does not make a book, but it does usually constitute enough to get me started. Sometimes it’s the overarching plot or a particularly poignant scene that I imagine, maybe even an opening line. In this instance it was an opening line twinned with a reflective closing statement that got me all fired up, which would, I felt, unite the 90,000 words in between. So, a couple of weeks ago when I finally made a start, I couldn’t wait to get writing. As I worked on the idea I came up with a structure, a plot to tell the tale, and as I got the early scenes laid out on paper I thought it was all looking pretty good.
Then two weeks into the writing process, with roughly 14,000 words written, I had what I can only describe as a lightbulb moment. Other creative types will know the sort, and I suspect many others in professions of which I have no understanding will be able to appreciate the concept; a moment when you are so damn sure that you know exactly what you need to do, that you can’t ever imagine the outcome being anything other than perfect. Perhaps for a lawyer it is that breakthrough moment in a case, a final piece of evidence. For a surgeon that moment when she clips the right vessel and the bleeding suddenly stops. It’s that pivotal moment in time when you are sure that what you have just experienced is universal serendipity. For me as a writer it is what looks like the perfect idea, as if we were always meant to find each other and live happily ever after as New York Times bestsellers.
But the trouble with these fancy ideas is that they make your sturdy, stable ideas seem just that little bit less. They make you feel as if to stick with the original plan is playing it safe. Maybe as a surgeon or lawyer that’s a good idea, but let’s face it, somebody in my profession never wants to be accused of that. So, I spent the latter half of Friday morning mulling over my flashy new idea, trying to make it work. And when a couple of hours later I was still convinced it was the best idea I’d ever had I set about restructuring the whole novel. Of course it will work, I told myself. It’s amazing, I thought, certainly enough to tweet about. It was, I was sure, the perfect lightbulb moment. But do such moments ever really exist?
I didn’t work much this weekend, in part because we had a lot going on familywise, but mainly because in order to make my new idea work I had so much reorganisation to do in terms of my plot that I fancied instead just revelling in the idea for a bit longer. But yesterday morning when I came to sit down at my desk to do all that new planning and research, to find ways to incorporate that idea into the new manuscript which was barely out of nappies, I realised I couldn’t make it work. Not without losing everything else I already had. And without everything else, all that I had left was a flashy idea, and without the groundwork to hold it up, it didn’t even look that tempting anymore. I was left with a twist, and that on its own is nothing. What value is a novel concept, if it comes without substance? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not worth very much at all.
So yesterday I spent the best part of three hours doing not all that much in terms of writing. I had to work through the idea, test it from every possible angle in order to see it for what it was; a distraction. It was a major disappointment. But this time was necessary because it was what I needed to understand that what I had already planned really was the book that I wanted to write all along. The other, newer idea, was just a blip in the road. I’m sitting back at my desk now feeling much more comfortable that I’ve worked it through, with the knowledge that my new idea isn’t going to work. And in doing so I see the merits of what I have already done.
Changing focus during the writing of a first draft is always part of the course. This is my eleventh manuscript to date, and I feel like I have learnt quite a lot during that writing time, about what it means to see an idea through, and perhaps what it means to leave an idea behind. In my first books I took whatever idea I had and ran with it. This new idea would have without doubt ended up as a full-length novel. There was little planning to my work at that stage, and I would romp through whatever first draft came to mind and celebrate the completion of 80,000 words irrespective of what they were or what story they wished to tell. But writing isn’t about a word count. It’s about carefully manipulating an idea into a story that has meaning. A novel isn’t about a twist. Just like in real life, the moments that really count are never the extravagant gestures or carefully planned surprises. It’s the quiet interactions between people who care for one another that matter, the simple experiences shared between loved ones. When people look back at their lives it’s not the wedding they remember, but the acts of love and support that create the map of a shared life together that are cherished. The big moments are the foundations, but it’s the everyday experiences that help paint the picture of that life.
Moving from one idea to the next and trying to make things work in fiction never gets us very far. Working on something until it’s good? Now that’s where the true moments of magic are found. Rushing through to the end only leads to disappointment. My new book idea looked for a moment like it was everything I was looking for, but after taking the time to work it through I found myself back on the right track. It was an idea that looked too good to be true. But then again, most things that look that good usually are.
As any decent writer has said, I love to read. Besides on trains or in queues or during the lost hours at the hairdressers, my reading time is usually the evenings. The mornings constitute my work time, afternoons are dedicated to my daughter when she comes home from nursery, so books get whatever time is left after dinner. But when I am reading or editing my own manuscript prior to delivery I find it very difficult to focus on other books. It’s a combination of being tired from reading – yes, I know, I didn’t used to think that was a thing either – and wanting to stay focussed on only one story, namely the one I am trying to produce. So during the two weeks prior to manuscript delivery I tend to watch more TV in the evenings than at any other time in the year. If I can binge watch a new series, even better.
So last week as I worked to deliver on a deadline I spiralled into what can only be described as total obsession with a Netflix show called Money Heist (originally La Case de Papel). My husband got started first, watched half of the first episode with Greek subtitles because the show is in Spanish. Now I read Greek, but it turns out Spanish people talk really fast, and my Greek lexicon doesn’t stretch to criminality at the national mint. But it looked interesting so a quick shift into English subtitles (I can’t do the dubbing, even though it was very well done) gave me a chance to watch, and it took only minutes before I was hooked.
It’s fair to say that the rest of the evenings that week are a blur. We agreed upon on a dose of three to four episodes a night until it was done, and soon enough my first and last thoughts of the day concerned the success of the heist. The Spanish word Puta (bitch) began to pepper our conversations, from expressing any level of discontent to general interaction. For example, Puta, pass the salt. Puta fetch me a toilet roll; it was all very gender neutral. It’s true to say now that it’s over that I might be a little bit in love with the Professor, the brains behind the whole thing, and I am still humming a communist Italian revolutionary song used in the show on a daily basis. Ciao bella, Ciao bella, ciao ciao ciao.
You might ask where my life and normal personality went during that time, but for that week I lived and breathed another life, that of a robber involved in a heist for which I was totally invested in the success of the operation. At times I cried. I empathised with the characters. I cheered their successes and detested the police. Of course you’re robbing a bank, I thought at one point. What other choice did you have? In real life I’m the kind of person who will reverse a couple of times to make sure I am equally positioned between two parking lines to give my fellow citizens a chance to open their doors. If you live in Cyprus you will understand that is not the norm. But you get the point; I’m law abiding and fairly considerate. But for one joyous week I was rooting for the crooks, and any beating or gunshots or anarchic terror inflicted on the innocent hostages seemed to me entirely reasonable. And that is for me what good fiction is all about.
Somehow, I could watch this show and still work on my book during the day, so that was a winning combination. But there is a lot of talk about how bad for us binge-watching TV really is, and there is no doubt this is true if it becomes a continuous habit. I have even banned screen time for my almost two-year-old because I know it negatively affects her behaviour. So why did I let myself get so carried away? Because getting lost in a piece of brilliant fiction every now and again is a wonderful experience. It’s an escape into another world in which we get the chance to live vicariously, in lives so different to ours. Whether it’s books or television, I think the effect is the same. Yes there is a negative side to it if we use it as a tool of avoidance of real life problems, but fiction has the potential to entertain and make us happier. It is powerful. Connecting with wonderful characters helps us build empathy and provides us a chance to view the world in new ways. This is one of the reasons why I love writing so much. To have the chance to create these worlds for people is both a joy and a privilege.
There’s another season of Money Heist slated for 2019, but no specific release date yet. Hopefully that means it’s some way off because I need to begin a new manuscript soon if I am to keep on track. For my own sake I hope it will release in the later half of 2019. But before that there is also the little matter of Game of Thrones to deal with. I have three months before that’s due to begin. That’s not all that long for a full first draft when you don’t even know what you want to write. I suppose I better get to it. Time for another binge.
Something I have written about before on this blog is the fact that just over two years ago, I lost my father to cancer. Second only in significance to having a baby, this experience changed me so much as a person. It’s fair to say I took it quite hard. Maybe I would have found it just as hard if he died suddenly of a heart attack, or was in an accident, but for me the experience of losing him slowly, and watching him suffer left a lasting impression, and a whole bunch of memories I wished I didn’t have.
For close to seven weeks I lived in a limbo, not working, not living at home, and not even in my home country. For the most part I’d been living in my father’s apartment, spending the days at the hospital. I was fortunate to have other family around who fed and watered me on occasion, but I still went back to his place at the end of most days to a microwave meal for one and an empty arm chair at my side. People offered me to stay with them, but I turned them down. I needed the space and downtime. My only constant during that time was my father’s partner who was going through it all with me. She helped us keep some sense of routine, and just her presence seemed to ease the weight of what we were going through.
On one of these trips back to England during this time I took the last-minute option of a connecting flight via Lithuania with a seven-hour layover. I sat in a small café that overlooked the runway. I watched the light fade and the snow begin to fall as I waited for my flight and began to muse over the idea of a story. It was what I knew how to do. But the story that came to me wasn’t about my father dying, but rather the love I witnessed between him and his partner during those final weeks of his life. They had never lived together in the twenty years they shared, yet she remained at his bedside throughout, and did everything for him. When I couldn’t be there, I knew she was. And I realised something then; that while I was witnessing the worst life had to offer, I was also, on some level at least, also witnessing the best. Total, absolute, and unquestionable love.
Following my father’s death, I struggled to sit down at my computer and write much and wasted a lot of time on social media. My new home office had a double function as the planned bedroom for my dad to use when he came to visit, and I didn’t want to be in there. The shower we had put in downstairs just felt like a stupid waste of space and money. We were just about to order the sofa bed but cancelled the idea at the last minute. Nobody was going to use it then. I was supposed to be coming back from a running injury around the same time, but the last run I took was at 5 a.m. on a frosty morning in the UK when I couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t be bothered to get myself out because it all seemed pointless. You can call it what you like; a funk, depression, the blues. Grief or loss. It was in some way all those things. The funeral held three weeks later did help draw a line under the experience, but I knew that I needed to do something to get back on track.
And the idea that I had during that long Lithuanian layover kept coming to me. I wanted to write his story. A few weeks after the funeral when I returned to the UK for a meeting with my agent, I broached the idea of writing a love story. I am fortunate to have a wonderful agent who was amenable to the idea of me writing that novel, even though I had only ever shown her my dark side. But knowing I was going to write that story helped me begin to move forwards.
I couldn’t begin writing that story then due to other commitments; I edited one book, wrote another, and became a mother. There was no room for anything else. But in March of this year I sat down and wrote a provisional title for my father and his partner’s story and set about getting it written. I’m still working on it, but I have shared an early draft with my agent and I got a tentative thumbs up. It’s so strange in some ways to be writing something other than a thriller, but I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed writing a book this much in years. People and lives change, and the only thing you can do is be amenable to that change and see where life takes you. I’ll never stop missing my dad, but I’ll always be thankful that even in his death he taught me not only the true extent of what it means to love somebody, but also that it’s not memories that define you, but rather what you chose to do with them.
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.
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.
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.
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.