For the last couple of years, I’ve looked forward to the publication of The Bookseller magazine each week. In the same way that scientific publications made me feel part of the wider cardiological community when I was working as a physiologist, the publication of a magazine dedicated to the publishing world, creates a sense of being part of the bigger picture. Writing is a lonely, often isolating vocation, and personally doing it so far away from a central hub like London, means that The Bookseller offers an opportunity for insight that is not to be overlooked.
The magazine and articles published on the website provide a snapshot into activity behind the scenes, such as mergers, takeovers, and jobs. But it also represents the wider publishing experience for a writer. Every time I log in it seems there are deals taking place, new six figure pre-empts being offered, and titles celebrating sales in a gazillion territories. Certainly, this idea is supported by figures from The Bookseller issue dated 22nd May 2020. In an article concerning titles moved from summer to autumn publication secondary to the outbreak of Coronavirus, there will be a total of 10,069 new titles released this September. My next book is not due to be published until November 2020, in hardback in the US, where I suspect there will be even more titles fighting for shelf space. But in all honesty, when I saw the UK figures for September, my first thought was that I was glad that my book wasn't one of them. Over ten thousand books in a month. I had no idea there could be so many. Yet, in the same breath, I was already reminding myself that November is unlikely to be that different. So, if this is close to the average number of books being released each month, give or take a bit, how on earth does a book go on to find coverage in the press, garner reviews, or find its way into the hands of readers?
Of course, some big titles will have the weight of a massive publicity campaign behind them, but the sheer volume of new books released each month means that it is impossible to provide such support for all the books that are scheduled for release. Other books will benefit from word of mouth, Goodreads and Netgalley reviews, and perhaps a favourable thematic association with one of the big names. But many books will struggle. Perhaps some these titles are coming from smaller houses, where even the survival of the house itself is at stake. So in an environment where there are so many books stacked against so few places on the bestseller lists, how is it that we are supposed to measure success?
When my first book was released back in 2017, it was as a trade paperback in the UK. I had little idea of what to expect, having never experienced a publishing day before. Back when I was self publishing it was easy to celebrate because there was nobody relying on it but me. I knew the way the market worked on Amazon, and knew not to expect a rush in sales on day one. On my first traditional publishing day I spent the day in a bit of a slump. I lost count of the hours I spent on twitter, thanking people for retweets and positive comments. I watched Amazon rankings until my eyes hurt, refreshing the page, wondering when they would climb. I got flowers from my agent and publisher, and that was nice. But the overall experience was a bit of a let-down. It felt like Christmas day, but one where you wake up with a hangover, where your presents are substandard, and where even though you play the right games and eat the right food, by the end of the day, you’re just sort of pleased it’s all over.
The catalyst for my slump in mood came in the form of an email from my publisher. It was upbeat and full of congratulations, but there was a simple, and clear indication that the sales were not as expected. It wasn’t going to be in Waterstones, and we were waiting for the MMPB for the supermarkets. My sister in law then text me to say she couldn’t find it on her high street either. So, I had a book out, there had been quite a bit of fuss, including some great mentions in magazines, and yet it didn’t seem to have done the most important thing of all; sell. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, as I had no precedent against which to judge it, but I know the sales reported didn’t reach my aspirations. In short, even though nobody said it, and even though the reviews were pretty good, I felt kind of like a failure.
Without much conscious thought on the matter, I had decided that I was going to judge the success of the book like the publishing house did, which is to say by sales figures alone. But I wonder now in that week, just how many books were released. Should I have expected with such naïve certainty that my debut novel would strike a note on the bestseller list? As a writer looking for a long term career, and enough money to live off without having to get another job, selling well is essential. But is it the only metric of success?
It took for the release of the paperback, in both the UK and several foreign territories before I decided that the book wasn’t a failure after all. I received an email from a reader in the Czech Republic which changed the narrative I had been telling myself. She had just read the Czech edition, and contacted me to say that the story was a reflection of her own life. After being abandoned by her mother as a child, they had recently reconnected, and she had found the courage to ask the necessary questions about her past after reading my book. This moment felt much bigger and much more important than a place on a list, at least on a personal level. This very outcome was the inspiration behind writing the book in the first place, knowing that I would soon begin my own journey with adoption not long after the book was published. After this email, although sales mattered, and still matter, this reader's message was a reminder that the stories we write are not sold to our readers for industry accolades and financial compensation alone.
Writers write in order to connect, to share stories and ideas, and promote conversation. In this instance, my book sparked a very important conversation, which I know will always remain a highlight in my career. We write because people need stories, a lot more than any writer needs a position on a chart. Perhaps never more so than now, when we are all so distanced from those we love, stories allow us to share parts of ourselves with people all over the world. They bring us closer together, and help us understand the time in which we live. This is why stories from BAME and LGBT+ writers must also be told by those qualified to tell them, and why barriers to the publishing world for those writers must be brought down.
So, this begs the question that when my next book is released, do I not care about chart success? Don’t be silly, of course I do. May Little Wishes sail into the lofty position of being a chart topping bestseller. Both in the UK and the US, and everywhere else it sells. But now I know well enough not to expect it. To celebrate the launch irrespective of sales. Because now I also appreciate that being read, connecting with the lives of readers, can be just as rewarding as finding a place in the charts.
In just a few short months it will be a decade since I moved to Cyprus. In some ways it doesn’t feel like that long, and in other ways it’s as if the whole word has changed since the day I stepped onto a plane with a one way ticket. In that time, I know I have changed a lot as a person. When somebody asked me before I left what I was going to miss when I left the UK, I didn’t have an answer for them. Not because there weren’t going to be things that I’d miss, but rather because I wasn’t looking at it like that. I was looking forward to a new life, and was happy to try and start again. I didn’t want to try and recreate the life I lived in the UK, in a new country that I knew very little about.
Yet starting again in a new country is always going to be harder than you think or hope it will be. I felt sure that within six months I’d have the language sussed, had no idea that ten years down the line I’d still be asking people what certain words mean. I knew my career would be different, but I never imagined, or would have even dared to dream, by quite how much it would change. This week I have been thinking a lot about fresh starts after deciding to quit on a 75,000 words manuscript. It’s not the first time I’ve done something like this, having previously abandoned another book in the past, and also needing to rewrite Between The Lies, my second thriller, at least four times. Second book hell. But it is the first time I’ve abandoned a work in progress with such certainty.
I knew, all along, that something wasn’t quite right with the book that I had been writing. Six or seven years ago, I would have taken that rather differently. I would have either persevered, and with an 85,000 word manuscript would have declared it ready and defiantly hit the self-publish button, or I would have scrapped it in the belief I was a crappy writer and ploughed head first into another book in yet another genre. Something with aliens, or London in a toxic post-apocalyptic fog. Now though, I recognise a crappy draft as what it is; the road to the book I’m supposed to be writing.
I’ve been writing this particular book for about six to eight months now. When I began, I felt sure I was working along the right lines. I had an idea, something that I thought functioned as a hook, and yet when I started writing it, I couldn’t get it quite right. So, I stopped for a while, took a break for some more planning, and then came back to it. Another 20,000 words later I hit another roadblock, and I started to wonder if it was a sign that something was wrong with my idea. I shelved the project for some thinking time, and went on to write 25.000 words for another idea that I had in mind. I wasn’t sure where I was going with that, but sometimes when I need a break it’s helpful to focus on something else entirely. But ultimately, by starting another book, the only conclusion I could reach was that I wanted to return to the book that I couldn’t make work, even though I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
I started it again, reaching a lofty 75,000 words, which is not all far from the end of a first draft, in theory at least, although I still wasn’t sure as to what end I was writing. Then, by chance, I received my edits for Little Wishes, and from somewhere, no idea where, the idea for the other book came to me. All it took was a new location, one change of plot, and the whole story changed. The beginning felt improved, with greater believability, and the end left me with a lump in my throat. I wrote a synopsis quickly, which for me is always a good sign, and showed it to my harshest critic. That’s my husband, who had disliked everything about the previous book. As I read it aloud, he went quiet. I got a thumbs up, and I knew I should take that as an indication that I was onto the right idea. Finally.
So, this week I’ve been writing the first draft of this new version, lifting material from the earlier draft where I could, and writing new material where needed. New chapters, where I am absolutely in love with what is happening. And it feels as if perhaps now, in what must be draft four or five, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be with it. Another fresh start, with all the baggage from the earlier versions, characters whose lives had never been on the right course, now doing exactly what they are supposed to be, exactly where they were supposed to be doing it. Which, now I come to think of it, feels more than a little bit like me moving to Cyprus.
After managing to leave my computer at my in laws’ house I decided it wasn’t possible to write a blog post yesterday. But as it'll be another day or so before I get the wayward computer back, I have decided to write this post on my phone as I travel in the back of the car, returning from a trip to Ikea. As usual, although we only went for one thing our car is full, along with some other stuff in our friends’ car too. If you saw my previous post about reclaiming time, and how I was moving towards minimalism, you might wonder what this trip was all about. But two-year-olds don’t understand the concept of owning but a few things, and at that age it is entirely possible to outgrow your bed. Tonight will be the first time that she sleeps somewhere other than a cot. It feels like the right time, mainly because she is trying to climb out on a regular basis, but I am aware that it could be a disaster resulting in no sleep for anybody. Is there a way to avoid potential catastrophe? But more to the point, is there a way to know when the right time really is?
I like to think of myself as an organised person, but the truth is that I'm not really that on top of things. I'm better than I used to be, but regularly let things slide, or the the proverbial ball drop. The one place where I usually manage to keep on track is work. As a newly qualified cardiac physiologist in the NHS too many years ago to mention, in order to not mess up, I carried around a little notepad crammed with what I considered essential knowledge; departmental processes, physiological ranges, and from where I might be able to reorder printer toner. Now that I write books full time the biggest challenge is getting words on paper. I like to be ahead of the game in this respect, and when I delivered my edits for Little Wishes, the rough draft manuscript for Hidden Treasures was already written. But my next project is proving a bit more elusive.
This week I was listening to a podcast with Camille Styles, and one of her messages was that she was working on being a better procrastinator. Sounds counterproductive, right? But her point was that leaving a project unfinished kept it alive in your mind, and therefore amenable to change and improvement. This struck a chord with me, as I have two half-written books on my laptop, both seemingly excellent ideas when I began writing them. And yet they remain half-finished. The first I let sit when I came up with the idea for Hidden Treasures, sure that it would be a better follow-up to Little Wishes. The second book is what I have been writing up until last week. I thought it was going well but the separation from it during my recent holiday has made me seriously reconsider it as a project since I came back. I'm not sure I care about the plot or characters enough to spend the next year and a half with them, and therefore have taken a break.
I spent last week brainstorming for a new idea, a distinct cross between the two half-written manuscripts. And what I found is that I returned to an idea that has been with me in some shape or form for as long as I've been writing. But I also know that unless I give myself some room to work on it before actually beginning the process of writing, I'm never going to know whether it's a good idea or not. I've written the first half of two books and they aren’t right, so this time I'm going to sit back and let my thoughts marinate for a while before I commit to writing. For a while I'm going to practice being a better procrastinator and hope that helps me work through the issues.
Whether my new idea is the right idea, I don't know. But I know that if I don't try writing this new book, I will regret it. So, with that in mind, as I pull up outside home and get set to unload the boxes with a new bed inside, I'm preparing for a disrupted night ahead. Sometimes a period of being unsettled, allowing patience to pave the route at its own pace, is necessary. Sometimes, just like with the bed, you have to give in to the process. Will she sleep? Will she stay in the bed at all? Will my new book be the right book? I have no answer to any of these questions, but unless I take a chance on what I think is right, I'll just never know.
I’m always looking for ways to improve my productivity and concentration, and right now I’m working on the implementation of a daily morning routine. It’s born from some degree of necessity, because what I used to like to do after taking my daughter to school is no longer possible. To go for a run in Cyprus at 8 AM in the summer is just too hot and humid. So, despite being less than certain about my ability to stick to it, I started setting my alarm and getting up early.
While I never would have described myself as a morning person before the change in seasons forced my hand, I found I quite liked the reality of getting up before most of the world was awake. There’s a certain peace to be found from being productive when other people are sleeping, at least in my part of the world. I love following Rachael Hollis on her various social platforms, and she always insists we are made for more. I always could get on board with that idea, but felt somewhat certain that I was not made for mornings. But since I’ve been getting up early and running on the regular, I find the idea of getting out of bed is not only no longer a chore, but that I even started waking up without my alarm.
Whether it is a coincidence, or the possibility that my radar has been tuned into the idea of early rising, but since I started this practice I’ve realised that there is some sort of movement towards early rising in the wider population as a tool for improving success. During my recent holiday a friend’s poolside reading was The 5AM Club by leadership expert Robin Sharma, who ‘introduced the concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity’. That’s no small promise for a 5 AM wake up call. The concept is that you get up early, dedicate an hour to exercise, goal setting, and reading, and you divide your time into twenty-minute time blocks for each activity. If you head over to Robin Sharma’s home page you are instantly reminded that ‘winning starts at the beginning.’ Now if it’s true, that all my dreams are achievable on the other side of an early morning wake up call, you can count me in for running to the tune of the dawn chorus every single day for the rest of my life.
In truth, the holiday I recently took in Rhodes has quite a lot to answer for. Not only did I come back with renewed enthusiasm for following a minimalist lifestyle, but now I’m also planning to start waking up at 5 AM. I did plan to start as soon as I got back, but a few sleepless nights with my poorly two-year-old put paid to that. But with the start of a new week I set my target for today. I decided not to try to wake up at 5 AM from the get-go, and instead I set my alarm for 5.45 AM. That’s half an hour earlier than my usual time, and it did not feel good. For those first few seconds upon hearing the alarm going off I wanted to take the idea of the 5 AM club and stick it somewhere where the sun was only just beginning to shine. But I powered through, and by 6 AM I was on my yoga mat flexing into what is a far from pretty, downward dog. Twenty minutes later, I was meditating. Next was goal setting and planning my day, and finally I snuck in twenty minutes of reading; a book about how to throw away your things which quite frankly left me feeling a little depressed for the person who wrote it. But by the end of that hour I felt awake, ready for the day, and as if I’d already achieved something important for myself.
Tossing my belongings aside, the rest of my day has been pretty productive, and I have approached it with a level of commitment I don’t often manage to muster. It’s coming up to ten in the evening, and still I’m writing the rough draft of this blog post because that’s what I planned to do. I’ve accepted that I want to shake up my manuscript and have done lots of mental planning. I read another two modules for a diploma I am studying. Besides not getting a key cut, I did everything I wanted to do. All in all, it was a great day, and I haven’t even turned on Netflix.
Do I think I can muster the strength for a 5 AM start in the near future? The truth is that I just don’t know. I like seven hours sleep, and my baby doesn’t go to bed until 8 PM. After that I need to eat, and I often have work left over, be it for writing or cardiology analysis, an ongoing responsibility from my previous life. But perhaps if I can do a few days at 5:45 AM, and then a few days at 5.30 AM, maybe I’ll give the 5 AM club a try. I have visions of myself a bit like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, only less attractive with inferior hair. Either that, or maybe just asleep at my desk. But if it really is the key to success, it has to be worth a try.
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.
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.
**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.
The stages of writing a novel are many and varied, and some of them are easier than others. Take the final copy edit as an example. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to read my own book and look for typos, as long as I can find the will to tolerate reading my own material for the hundredth time and accept that I won’t find any mistakes, even though they are there. But I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel to be the very first. I have just reached the end of writing the first draft, and at no point during the revision process will it ever be this easy again.
Now that’s not to say that coming up with a worthy idea or manoeuvring my characters around for the duration of 90,000 is a doddle. On top of that, coming up with a decent hook is no mean feat. How many books have I written only to realise after writing the first draft that the hook needs work before it goes to a publisher or agent? Hint; every book I’ve ever written. But there is a certain freedom to be found in the mentality of writing a first draft, for me at least, which I think most writers who do this on a full time basis appreciate. That freedom comes from the knowledge that the first draft is allowed to be really, really shit.
Many writers have talked about writing a first draft, and one of my favourite quotes about this process comes from John Dufresne; The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but get it written. There should be no hesitations or concerns about language or poetic phrasing. Just get the damn thing written. You can edit it pretty later. And so if upon a first reading I find that the first draft is any good, even a little bit good, then I think that is a huge stroke of luck in my favour.
I often think of writing a book as a bit like crossing a torrential, raging river. Writing a first draft is the same as throwing in great big boulders to create stepping stones so that you can just about get from one side to the next without falling in the water and getting swept downstream. There’s nothing glamourous or elegant about it, and the point is simply to get from one side to the other by any means possible while your agent and publisher wait on the bank for a safe crossing to be created. Of course, they are carrying their own tools to help you, much more sophisticated tools that can be used later in the process, but they are still waiting on the other bank while you make that first exploratory journey. They don’t want to get on that crossing or get involved in its engineering until it already looks like a stable path.
So right now the stage I am at is that I’m back on the bank with the whole crew behind me, waiting to test the route I have laid. I’m standing there, looking at what I’ve done, and wondering whether the path is going to hold. This first edit is the hardest, but also the most rewarding period in writing a book. It’s the point when all the major players arrive at their stations, when you move your characters not only from A to B, but give them a purpose and motive behind it. There’s thought, not just from the writer, but from the characters. In real life we all have friends whose behaviour we can predict, whose responses we can anticipate, and creating a book full of characters with the purpose of telling a story is like getting to know new friends. If characters don’t start to think for themselves, ergo, directing the way of the narrative, the chances are they are not yet developed sufficiently to do so; you just don’t know them well enough yet.
I edited my first chapter yesterday and it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. My first draft comes in at just under 90,000, and it wasn’t until I hit 75,000 words that I really had the first lightbulb moment, that thought when I suddenly realised how to link the beginning to the end, and the relevance of all the major events mid-way through. And what is great to realise now is that those early stepping stones I tentatively laid just over a month ago right at the start of my journey serve a very nice purpose. Sometimes it’s necessary for a complete do-over, but this time it would seem that my early chapters, although they need work, serve as a great foundation for what I really want to say.
Although I might have reached the end of what I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel, I am about to commence the hardest. I’ve got my feet back in the water, and I’m praying that the stones I have set in place hold up as I expect them to. So far they look as if they just might.
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.
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.