In the last post I discussed the issue of quality, and the fact that I don't consider it as all that important when drafting a story for the first time. And so here I thought to highlight that point, it might be fun to take a look at the first draft of some of my work, and compare it with the final edition.
Below, you will find the first paragraphs from an early edition of Little Wishes, which at the time was called The Light From Wolf Rock. In fact, this isn't the opening chapter, because that changed in its entirety. An early draft with peppered with letters from one character to the next, and they were all but removed from the final draft. In it's place I wrote a new present day narrative, which changed things dramatically. But this once opening chapter remained as chapter two. Reading it now, I can see that the elements I wanted to get in their do exist, but there is much less finesse, the language is more roughly hewn together, and there is a depth to the internal monologue of the character that is missing. All of that comes over the course of getting to know the characters, and developing the story. I could have worked on this opening chapter for weeks, and it could have been glorious, but I still think I'd have ended up changing it once I'd written the whole book.
I hope seeing the way that my first draft has changed will be helpful to you in creating your own first draft of whatever novel you are currently writing.
first draft of the light from wolf rock
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. She sat up in bed, her curtains still open. The sky was dark, broken by a single glimmer of light as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. Summer was over and the onset of autumn had delivered with it the promise of a difficult winter, the kind where the salt spray would infiltrate everything, a permanent slick of saline on your lip. Moments later she heard a door slam, and then from the distance, travelling on the wind, the faintest ringing of a bell. It chimed, frenetic and hurried. Was that a voice she could hear, calling out? She pushed the covers aside and moved to the window, her feet cold on the wooden floor. She saw her father rushing down the street, his boots untied, his pyjamas sneaking out from underneath the tails of his coat. Where was he going at this hour, dressed in his nightclothes?
Elizabeth’s father was the village doctor and liked to keep a standard. It was important, he thought, for his patients to see him as organized and dependable, so that they might trust him with their ailments. It helped, he said, with gleaning an honest history. But his absence meant that her mother would be worried on her own. She didn’t cope well with change anymore. Only a year ago she was full of surprises; returning home with little gifts like a new set of paints, ribbon for plaiting hair, or perhaps something as simple as a particularly beautiful leaf which she had retrieved from the ground. Her mother hated the thought of beauty going unnoticed, something of worth being forgotten. That was perhaps the cruelest irony since she herself only last week had forgotten Elizabeth’s name.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. The landing was long, broken by steps in the middle. It ran all the way from Elizabeth’s room to a door at the other end. The door to her parents’ bedroom was ajar, the light creating a golden shard in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth, but there came no answer. Elizabeth picked up the pace, feeling that something wasn’t right. She arrived alongside the landing window, hearing the scuffle of more hurried feet rushing along the winding street in the direction of the sea. A light rain misted against the window, the black road silver in the moonlight where water collected in the uneven surface. Who were those men, and to where were they running? She followed their movement; light shone from the harbor, and something didn’t feel right.
FInal edition of little wishes
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. The dark sky was broken by the glimmer of moonlight as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. The clock ticked at her side, and she saw that it was a little after 1 a.m. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed, followed by the faintest ringing of a bell. Was that a voice she could hear too, calling out? Pushing the covers aside, she jumped from the bed, moved towards the window. As she peered into the street, she saw her father rushing from their home in the direction of the sea. His shoes were untied, the blue and white stripe of his pyjamas flickering underneath the tails of his coat. There had been calls for such urgent departures in the past, but even in the direst of emergencies he always got dressed. Leaving in his nightclothes was unthinkable.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. With her father gone, the responsibility for her mother was left to her. Even at the age of seventeen she knew it wasn’t good for her to wake alone. Ahead, a thin slither of light shone from the door of her parents’ bedroom, left ajar in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth as she moved along the landing. They tried to keep her accompanied since the cruelty of the confusion had set in about a year ago, yet still there were unpredictable moments like this when she ended up alone. Early onset Alzheimer’s, her father called it. The name didn’t mean much to Elizabeth, but she hated the disease all the same. Only last month they had found her mother trying to take a boat out, with seemingly little idea about where she was and devastatingly unprepared for what might have lay ahead. Her condition was getting steadily worse, just a little bit every day; her presence in their family like a rock ground down by the constant weight of the tides.
Last week on the blog, I was thinking about my writing routines, and the kind of practices I used to have in terms of writing my earliest books. Also, what routines I have now, and in what way they differ to how I started out. And now that it is November, officially the month of NaNoWriMo, it seems sensible to linger a while longer on this. Because while it's okay to talk about writing practices, and how they are changed, an important question goes unanswered; what is required to formulate a writing practice in the first place?
For many people this November will be the first time they embark on a novel writing experience. In the past I have also participated in NaNoWriMo, and it was an excellent way for me to focus my time and efforts on a predefined goal. My third self-published book was written that way. But managing to write 50,000 words within one month does, I think, seem a somewhat daunting process. Even now, the truth is, that if I was asked to write that many words in one month, my first reaction would not be positive. I'd be considering the complexities of navigating a plot, of how to make the relationships between the characters blend effortlessly, and how I might make characters I had not yet met for any length of time feel real. But while all of these concerns go against writing that many words in such a short space of time, the argument against taking that challenge ignores one of the most fundamental tents of what it takes to write a novel.
If you are reading this, I'm guessing there is a chance you are considering writing a novel. Perhaps it's not your first, or maybe perhaps it is. It doesn't matter when it comes to this point. Because I suspect that at no matter what stage you are at, whether it be your first book, or your tenth, you share a concern that all writers feel to varying degrees. Even now, as I plan my next book, I am aware of it; will it be any good? But if this is your first novel, I feel there is something important to point out, because there is something you learn after having written a few novels already; the first draft doesn't have to be.
Only in the practice of writing do you begin to learn that early drafts have no requirement to be good. Some writers might spend months on writing a first draft, only to delete it and start again once that rough attempt gave them what they needed. Others might keep the early draft and cherry pick the best bits. Of course, there are a few who are able to write an almost clean draft from the outset, but I know for a fact there are also many, many sentences and paragraphs that will be scrapped for the majority of writers working today. Even a novel that has been through several edits by the writer herself, and perhaps the agent too, will go on to receive further scrutiny at the level of the publishing house. My first traditionally published novel My Sister was changed dramatically after getting to the publishers.
So if you are setting out to write your first novel, whether it be a 50,000 word bonanza during NaNoWriMo, or a more gentle fifteen to twenty minutes per day while the kids are in the bath and you have the laptop propped on your knees, I offer you this one moment of solidarity from somebody who knows; worry less about what you are writing, and focus only on the fact you are doing it. The quality of the writing matters little at this stage. Just get the story down, and you can work on things like voice, structure, and even plot at a later date. The best bits always show up during the edit anyway.
Falling in love with the process of writing all over again, and how that's the key to producing my best workRead Now
Some time has passed since I last updated this blog. In fact, it’s over two years since there was something I wanted to add. And yet, while you might think the implication is that I haven’t been all that busy, there has in fact been a lot of things going on. Looking back, the last post I wrote was just prior to the publication of Little Wishes, and since then Hidden Treasures has also been released. Does that mean I wasn’t taking things seriously, or care about the publication? Of course not. But it’s fair to say that we’ve all had a few other things on our mind since March 2020, and both of my books were released in or around lockdown conditions. Priorities took up what available time I had, and all those little things I used to shoehorn into my days got cast aside. I suspect I need not go into detail, dear reader. You probably spent the last couple of years doing the same. Then again, perhaps you were one of the people who learnt a new language or taught yourself to code in all those new, flexible hours. I, on the other hand, was not.
But if coming back to this blog is part of re-establishing old routines, might it not be a good idea to try to first work out what those routines were? In the last two years, even with two more books published, I don’t feel like I have made any significant leaps forward, either personally, or professionally. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’m not keen on writing new year’s resolutions, but I find myself with that kind of mentality of late. A willingness to complete a stock take of where I’m at, what I’m doing, and where it is I want to go. But it’s been so long, I’m not sure I can remember what my old routines looked like in order to make the assessment. And even if I could skip back two years, pre-pandemic and pick up where I left off before, were the ministrations of my daily life so well refined that I would even want to slip straight back into them?
When I first started writing, I used to dream about the option of staying home to write all day, alone, like it was some magical thing. It seemed a little impossible. At the time, unpublished me was writing from the reception desk at our medical practice, where I worked as a scientist/receptionist/untrained therapist/and cleaner. But I had a few hours a day for writing, and while they were usually interrupted by telephone calls and supplier visits, I didn’t have children to care for every day, and my day was spent, for the most part, at my leisure. I wrote and worked as and when I liked, which was to say, almost non-stop. Those office days were so enjoyable, creating worlds and stories, all with the hope of getting published, and absolutely no pressure to achieve it other than that I placed on myself. And after a few years of working as a self-published author, I found an agent, followed by a publisher, and a nice two book deal in eighteen territories. Not long after that I went to writing full time from home, the mythical dream fulfilled. But right around the same time I also became a full-time mum. And two full time positions tend to be a little rough on the person trying to fulfil them both.
And so, while I complained about my routines being turned upside down by the turmoil of quickfire political policy and pandemic worthy disease, I have come out the other side of it wondering if I ever really defined what it was that I wanted from my fulltime writing life. I never got to do it alone, because as soon as it began, I was also a mother. Then, with the pandemic, the whole family arrived, and I started to wonder whether I should give up writing altogether and get a job. With an office where I could be alone. I thought maybe I’d become a psychotherapist, so I signed up for a master’s degree, and justified the decision by saying it was just about protecting my future employment opportunities. What if the writing thing ended? What if I never got another publishing deal? A wise friend reminded me if I continued dedicating 50 hours a week to studying for a career I wasn’t sure I wanted, then surely there was no doubt I wouldn’t.
And so this September, after putting aside distractions like ill-advised degrees and weird household side projects - of which I think the less said about those the better - and after a good break in the summer, I return to my writing desk, perhaps for the first time in quite a while, feeling like the writer I used to be. The person I used to be when I had no time to write, but I carved it out anyway. The person who didn’t worry about deals and sales, but instead thought for the most part, only about the story in my head. And as a result of that, I’m arriving at my desk with excitement every day. I look at the world of publishing with awe again, only this time, wiser, more cautious, and with a team on my side from the offset. I find myself remembering the me of six years ago, who had a spreadsheet, and a list of agent names, alongside columns for important facts like sent, received, rejected, full manuscript request. Plus one, final column, far right, entitled offer of representation, which remained empty for about 98% of the time. I had achieved nothing to speak of in many ways, no agent, no publisher, no standing as such in the world of publishing. And yet I was in love with the process. None of the rest mattered.
It’s actually strange to think that in the last two years I only felt that way when reminded by other people of my achievements, like a kind email or news of a new territory from my agent, or my editor with page proofs and a big thumbs up. Maybe a kind letter from a reader. But now, I’m working with a love for the simple craft of writing, one word after the next, and it is magic. Every page has given me reason to smile, and feel pleasure with the thing I am creating. The project I’m working on hasn’t even been signed off by my agent yet, and the truth is it might very well not be. It’s a little bit of a departure from what I’ve written before. The 70k words I’ve written to date don’t even quite work yet, and yet they have felt like the nicest, most simple of daily joys. They have felt like they are for me. On a practical note, my once minimalist office has become something I don’t recognise, can barely believe I’m responsible for it. Until now, if there was anything more than a keyboard on the desk, it was too full. I was all about the aesthetics, not the function. Now I have a wall planner, flow charts, sticky notes and photographs like one of those boards that track murders on the TV. Plot beats pasted at random heights to show intensity and pace. And in the bottom corner, nothing to do with the book, a few words as a gentle reminder to myself of just a year ago. A poem by Cavafy.
As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one.
For the first time, in a long time, I really do.
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 of 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.