I have heard it said that some writers do not really like the act of writing, that the first draft is just a hurdle to get over before the real fun begins. Although this is not how I feel about writing my first drafts, I can understand it. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. Of course it’s all fun in the beginning when your characters are fresh and doing exactly what you intended them to, but soon enough you reach the wastelands of Act Two, and even something as simple as getting from A to B seems like a giant challenge. That for me is part of the allure, but only because I am prepared to accept one vitally important covenant; the first draft of anything is going to be utterly shite.
And this is why I think some writers hate draft one, because they simply can’t stand to see the ugliness of all those raw words, strung together in their most unapologetic form. They prefer them crafted and honed. But I don’t think draft one is about prose or poetic sentences that people are going to highlight on their Kindle or start Goodreads discussions over. The first draft is about getting the skeleton of the story in order, or at least on the page so that it can be edited at a later date. It doesn’t matter if it sounds ugly or if some of the sentences are clunky. It’s OK that it’s a mess; the time for self-criticism comes later.
As a creative, self-criticism is my arch enemy, and the quickest route to stalling. I discovered it a long time ago, when I was still at school. Back then I was quite a good potter, and used to enjoy sculpting metaphorical structures based on dreams and Greek mythology. But when the time came to transition from GCSE to A-level the option to study pottery alone was no longer available: I had to also choose graphics or fine art. I hadn’t used a paintbrush for years, at least not for anything other than gluing together slabs of semi-dry clay. How was I supposed to compete with the other artists who were already painters?
So I went into those first lessons with a degree of self-doubt. Everybody seemed infinitely better than me, even before I had seen anybody’s work. But it was only because I was critical of myself, talked myself into doubting my abilities, and that set me at a distinct disadvantage.
The beginning was not the time to worry about what my paintings looked like. I should have been slapping as much paint onto canvases as I could until I had something to show for it. Instead I hung back, always a bit hesitant with my strokes. It culminated in me sitting through my exams painting the same clouds over and over, and barely finishing the composition. In short, I screwed it up. There is a place for self-criticism, only that wasn’t it.
It wasn’t until I began writing that I realised self-criticism could also be my friend. Back in the early days following the completion of my first manuscript, and right around the time I received my first set of agent rejections, I decided to self-publish. I created a cover, got the book ‘edited’, and before long my work was lose in the world. I was pretty proud of it, despite the fact in hindsight I can see it was lacking in just about every way. And it was all fun and games to begin with when friends and family and other well-meaning writers with whom I’d connected online were posting their 4 and 5 star reviews. But of course it didn’t take long for somebody to rip it apart. And while that hurt to start with, I realized that maybe I could use the negative reviews to my advantage. Here, self-criticism helped me get a better handle on where I was going wrong, and helped me work through some of my bad-habits when it came to writing. It also pushed me into hiring a book jacket designer, and gave me the impetus to take myself seriously.
I am just setting out to write my fourth psychological thriller. I know the score here; knock the first draft out as soon as possible, because it’s only then that the real work begins. But I am also beginning another project, something that is totally out of my comfort zone, and something that is deeply personal to me. I started a few weeks ago, and at first I could feel that same hesitancy in my writing that I could feel at school as a painter. Perhaps it was because the genre is different and I don’t know the tropes as well. Perhaps because in many ways this is my father’s story, and therefore it feels too precious to mess up, too important to leave those raw words and emotions on the page. But I’m beginning to find my groove and it feels good. I just have to remember to accept that the first draft of this new project most certainly will not be.
The life of a writer is pretty solitary. I spend most of my days, or at least I did before I had a child, sitting at my desk staring at a Word file. No music, no conversations with real people, and certainly no colleagues save those of my agent and editor who I converse with mainly via email. The crafting of a book takes months, even if you are the fastest of writers when it comes to the first draft. But all that time working alone, and all the introspection it takes to build a novel from the ground up, can create quite the hurdle when it comes to sharing work with others.
Writing is of course, for the most part, done with the intention to share it with the world. Besides journaling, what is the point of writing if not to be read? I have been publishing my work in some capacity for the last seven years now, but even now sharing a new manuscript with somebody, even somebody who has proven their faith in my work by accepting me as a client, still fills me with dread. It doesn’t matter how confident I am during the writing process, when I near completion doubt settles in like the snow across the south of Britain right now. Never do I question my manuscript more than when I type the title in an email to my agent for the first time.
Why? Because rejection sucks. My third manuscript has just been read and edited by my agent. This book is not yet under contract, so it was really important that I struck the right chord. Because I am aware that at any time my agent could decide that she no longer wishes to represent me. My publisher could decide to go ‘in another direction’. I remember what rejection looked like before I got an agent, and to be entirely honest, I really don’t want to go back there.
But even if my agent and editor love this book, that still doesn’t mean it is a success. There can be trumpets and fanfares and Champagne welcome meetings upon acquisition or publication, but what about after the work is released? Only the general public has the power to decide whether or not I did a good job, mob rule, like a gladiator in ancient Rome receiving a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I’m fortunate that the little yellow lines alongside my Amazon listing are top heavy, and I have more five star reviews than anything else. But the one star reviews are there.
But rejection is an inevitable part of the course, and as a writer I firmly believe it is something you need to learn how to handle early on. When I first submitted to agents I think I sent out twenty samples. I got twenty rejections. I am not even going to commit to how many rejections I have received since then. And it is tough to work through that at first. I’ll be honest, I came close to quitting. I was seven years and seven manuscripts into the process. But the turning point came for me when a lovely agent who shall remain nameless wrote me an email in response to reading my book. She told me that it wasn’t for her (I’m not sure she even represented thriller authors) but that I had a real talent and that I should absolutely not give up. That email was the push I needed to write to the agent I really wanted in order to remind her about my manuscript sitting in her slush pile. Three days later I had representation.
But rejection doesn’t end there. After that some publishers rejected it. But importantly, some didn’t. Some readers rejected it with their one star reviews. But more didn’t. My Sister is released as a paperback in less than a week. Tesco have not rejected it, meaning it is going to be in supermarkets pretty soon, along with a lot of bookshops. I have no idea how well it is going to be received, but even though some people will dislike it, and others might hate it, I still can’t wait to share it with the world. Because now that’s all I can do. Although rejection sucks, it’s inevitable, so I might as well just enjoy the ride.
When most people sign with a publisher for their debut novel, the contract is for two books. This is how I signed with Headline, and it felt pretty good at the time. Getting a contract for something I hadn’t even written from one of the big five is quite the mental endorsement, and injected a bit of confidence when it came to sitting down at my desk in front of a blank screen. Kind of, yeah, I got this. But any confidence I gleaned from having already signed a contract was shattered by the process. Book two was one of the hardest books I will ever write. It was the first time I ever had to work to a deadline, and the first time I was writing with specific people in mind who needed to like the finished product. But with their help and support and some cheer leading along the way, I got there with only one rewrite. But setting out to write book three was something different again, because I was doing so out of contract.
Before getting an agent or publisher, selling one of my books and securing representation was the only thing I ever thought about, and it often felt like an impossible task. I was plagued by questions: Am I writing something that an agent will like? Will this book make it out of the slush pile? Will anybody even read it? I just had no idea. But this time I started writing book three knowing that at least my agent would be looking at it. I started book three knowing that I had already sold two books, so theoretically at least, could sell another. I was starting to write with all the knowledge I had gained from the lessons learnt in writing the previous two. That gave me a sense of freedom to really focus on the crafting of the story, rather than wonder what the hell I was going to do with it once it was written.
And I honestly thought I had learnt my lesson with book two; write the book, and do it only once. Decide on a story and stick to it. Before I began I had the whole story planned out, and I got about 80,000 words in without any problems or questioning myself. I had a near-complete first draft, albeit rough and raggedy. But then the unthinkable happened; I got another idea that was infinitely better. And that raised a dilemma. Should I rewrite book three as well?
So there I was with an almost complete book, no contract, and an unwritten idea that was just begging to come out. Did that mean what I had written was no good? Did it need tossing? I had learnt a lot of lessons writing two books, but it seemed that insight into the value of my writing was not one of them. Stephen King wrote in his memoir, On Writing, that, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Did that mean I should stick to the book I had already written? I wasn’t keen to disobey the master, but I decided against it, shoveled it into a drawer, and set out to rewrite book three.
A couple of weeks later, sitting in London having dinner with my agent, celebrating the fact that book two was finally finished, she tentatively approached the idea of book three. I confessed that yes, it was written, but that I had plans to rewrite it. She must have wondered who the hell she had signed. She asked for five or six polished chapters in order that she might submit to my publisher, but it turns out I couldn’t deliver them. I’ve never been very linear when it comes to writing, and I have to accept that the first draft of anything I write is utter horse shit. Until the final pages are polished, the first chapters are ugly. But that’s OK, because I know that now, and I try not to let it bother me. That’s one of the things I have learnt. So I just kept on going, even when it felt tempting to go back to that book that was already written. Now the new book three is complete, and has been read and edited by my agent with tentative approval. I have completed an edit myself and it’s now back with her.
So are we there yet? I have no idea. Will this book secure me another contract? I have no idea about that either. I have learnt not to second guess what people will think. The market is tough, and I have no idea whether or not there is space for another one of my books. I sure hope there is, because I already have book four planned. The synopsis is probably the easiest I have ever written and I feel really confident about the story that lies ahead. But this time I am also planning a chapter breakdown before I even begin to write the book. Because although there is still so much that I don’t know, what I do know is this; I do not want to write this book twice. But at least I’m feeling confident. So again as I sit down to write the first draft of my next book I'm going to say, yeah, I got this. I think I know what I'm doing. For the time being at least.
Just before Christmas of 2013 I started writing a book. It had no title then, and only a loose premise. I thought it was going to be about two estranged sisters reuniting. I had a vague idea that they would meet, that there would be some sort of boyfriend trouble, and that was about all I had. It took me the best part of the next ten to twelve months to wrangle that first idea into a book which I decided to call If You Knew My Sister. At that point I had no agent, and therefore no publisher, but I was an old hat when it came to publishing independently via Amazon.
At the time I had published several works under my maiden name, and had a catalogue of six titles (nine if you count the various serial releases). But when I first decided to self-publish I had no idea what I was doing. I am somewhat ashamed to say that my first book underwent no editorial work, and I knocked the cover together myself on Paint. Yes, Paint. It was awful, but I thought it was all a bit Avant Garde, artistic, and moody. I was probably the only one. And I was probably also missing the point because besides anything else, it was supposed to be a thriller.
My second book wasn’t much better. I still managed to construct the cover on Paint in the first instance, better than the first it must be said, but still far from eye-catching. But once I realized the benefits of Photoshop my second title underwent a facelift, and that was the impetus to also overhaul my publishing journey. I sat down to read my reviews with a critical eye, looked out for recurring themes. It was a depressing task. It is not always nice to see what total strangers have to say about you from behind the safety of a computer screen. But I made friends with other self-publishers and spent a ridiculous amount of time in a forum, learning from people who knew more than I did and who were more experienced. I employed an editor, then a second editor, and also a designer. My aim was to add an air of professionalism to the work I was producing. I was a reader; I knew what books looked like. I wanted to produce something similar. And I think slowly I started to get it right. Sales picked up. Reviews improved. Then with the help of a free promotion and a Bookbub advert I reached the top of the free charts on Amazon with one of my titles. I was number one, and I couldn’t bloody believe it. And after the free period ended that title remained in a charting position for a few days of amazing sales. I have never checked Amazon so often, or with more enthusiasm. I was refreshing my sales data by the minute. Then a month later I received a cheque to the value of four figures and I was on cloud nine. I felt like I had achieved. I felt as if I had made progress as an author, and that month we paid our mortgage with the money from book sales. Job done.
Despite all that I hadn’t forgotten my dream to publish via a traditional publishing house with an agent to represent me and my work. Still, when I completed If You Knew My Sister I was on track for the same self-published journey; it was edited – although I would go on to learn I was quite wrong about that – and it had a cover all ready. My designer did a fantastic job on a number of my covers, and that final cover is the one that still stirs disappointment when I remember that it never got a chance to be used. But at the last minute prior to publication I took the plunge and began the submission process to agents. It was a gamble, and it took six months, but I found my dream agent. She later went on to secure the publishing deal that changed my life.
Fast forward three years, and I am now exactly one month prior to the release of the UK paperback of that same book that was all set to be self-published. It is now called My Sister (still If You Knew My Sister in the US), but since the day it was purchased by Headline it has been worked on and seen by so many people in the publishing world. And it’s strange, because perhaps partly because of that this book already doesn’t really feel like mine anymore. It’s been available online and in selected bookstores for almost twelve months now. It has over 100 reviews on Amazon. There are a number of foreign editions already published. This book already belongs to those people who have read it. And yet here we are, one month prior to publication.
When I was self-publishing I could, if I had wanted to, write a short novel and have it up for sale by the end of the day. Yet here, with My Sister, it has taken four years to get from the decision to write this book to reach the impending paperback release. And back when I was self-publishing I knew what to expect. I knew that the release day meant little in terms of sales. I knew that if I got a Bookbub advert I’d earn out the cost, and no doubt enjoy some time in the charts. I knew that reviews would be ridiculously hard to come by. I knew that in order to make sales I would have to advertise, spend money, do promotions, and generally work my butt off. But now for My Sister as it is about to enjoy its main release I have done my bit, or thereabouts. Now it’s over to my publisher, sales teams, and individual book sellers. This book is no longer about me, and what happens next is out of my hands. Even though I have been publishing for the last eight years in some capacity or another, and am about to start my fourth book, it feels as if I am right back at the beginning, and that seems like a pretty awesome place to be.
Before I actually sat down to write my first novel I had long lamented my dream of becoming a writer. I did what most hopefuls do and thought about it a lot, imagining the very best case scenario of how my writing career might develop out of thin air. Before I had even written a sentence of a novel I had considered the publishing deal, the bestselling hardback, and what it might feel like to have my story optioned by Scorsese, because yes, I thought that whatever I might decide to write when I actually sat down to do it would obviously be that good.
But it was at the time little more than wishful thinking because aside from harbouring the dream to write and occasionally telling friends that I was planning to write a novel when I’d had a few too many shandies, I wasn’t actually doing any writing. What occupied my mind was the Hollywood dream of what it meant to be a writer, ambling about my beach house barefoot in an oversized jumper – think Sharon Stone’s character of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct, only without the murders. Nothing set in reality. So the required leap from not writing at all to the vision of what I thought it meant to be a writer was ridiculous. It was one giant leap too far, because even if I had been writing every day, most writers don’t have that sort of NASA-propelled acceleration to the top of the food chain. In order to write I had to get my head out of the clouds, my ass on a chair, and my feet firmly on the ground.
When I eventually took that step I realised that it was going to take a lot of work to go from a blank screen with a word count of zero, to a fully edited novel that would make it through the first round of agent rejections. It seemed almost insurmountable, and needed a serious level of commitment that I wasn’t sure I had. So I chose to look at it in bite sized chunks rather than as a whole. I only ever thought about the work I had to do each day, rather than the eighty thousand or so words I still had left to find. And I still do that now because it makes life easier. Plus, you soon realise that writing a novel takes a lot of time. How much is up to you. Perhaps you are the kind of writer whose first draft will take less than a month to write, such as Rebus author Ian Rankin who is fueled by solitude and coffee. Maybe you benefit from a slower process, embarking on the kind of project that spans a few years, where the completion of the draft requires time for life and contemplation. It doesn’t really matter what you need or how long it takes. The only important decision at this stage is to sit down and do it.
When I first took the leap from post-it note scribbler walking the corridors of a hospital to dedicated hopeful at the computer each night I had no idea what kind of journey I was undertaking. I didn’t know whether or not I would be a fast or slow writer, poetic or snappy, happy or miserable. Most aspiring writers imagine themselves in a certain style or genre, and I was no different – a cross between Stephen King and Alice Sebold perhaps - but the theoretical version of yourself as a writer might be quite different to what translates to the page. I have said before that the first novel I wrote wasn’t up to much, and my idea of editing was up to even less. But still what I produced surprised me. Inspired me even. But nothing about that mattered; not how long or took, how bad it was, nor the style. Because what shifted when I decided to sit down that first night in front of my computer instead of the television was my mindset. It was that change in my attitude that would take me from a person who finished reading a book to a person who finished writing one. The decision to stop hesitating, the decision to take the risk, and more importantly than anything else the decision to take my writing seriously was the step that drove me into the career which I now love.
I had long dreamed of writing as a job, of getting to do it every day, with or without the beach house. I was never very sure about my chosen ‘safe’ career as a scientist, and almost gave it up a number of times. I suppose fear of failure held me back; of failing at being a scientist, and failing at having any clue how to go about doing what I really wanted to do. I had attended a school that was very driven when it came to studying at university, courses that drove students into real jobs. So a writer might have been OK if I had wanted to be a journalist. But novel writer? Perhaps I’d like to be an English teacher instead they suggested. I didn’t.
It’s true that teenage dreams are often over ambitious, and more often still not based in any reality recognisable to others. I thought my dream of being a writer was a bit of a joke, so pretty much kept it to myself. People don’t take unlikely dreams seriously, enjoy scoffing at them and the perceived naivety of those people who dare to wish for something more. But that’s OK. Because once you’ve grown you don’t need anybody else to take your dreams seriously on your behalf. You only need to take them seriously yourself in order to make them a reality.
I never used to mind catching a cold or a tummy bug before motherhood, quite liked it in fact. Admittedly in the acute phase there’s little merit in it, but I used to enjoy the requisite down-days at home, especially once I was on the mend. It’s the Hygge factor; sloppy clothes and warm blankets, tea with honey, and homemade chicken soup delivered in a basket by my mother-in-law. For me there was also the added benefit of time for writing when I would have ordinarily been at work. But when you get sick as a parent, especially if your baby succumbs as well, the story becomes something altogether different. Any positives that once existed get thrown out along with the mounds of snotty tissues.
And that’s what happened the week leading up to Christmas. I picked up the kind of cold that turns your legs to jelly, tires you out, and takes out only one of your nostrils; all in all nothing special. It could have been a lot worse. But my symptoms coupled together with a sick baby who has lost the ability to both eat and sleep, that minor cold became something insurmountable. My relaxed days with a laptop on my knees and food deliveries at my door morphed into six wake-ups a night, starting the day at 5 a.m., with no option to just to sit back and let the microbes do their worst. The whole experience makes me dread the day when I actually get properly sick. Something like tonsillitis. I had to dig deep while I fought nothing more than a little bug.
Holding it together in order to meet the demands of a challenge, be it making it to the end of a difficult day of motherhood, or something requiring deeper reserves like finishing a novel, there is undoubtedly a certain comfort in the satisfaction of a completed task. And earlier on this evening I read an article about a ninety six year old man who had just published his second novel. It had taken him until his ninth decade of life before he managed to fulfill his dream. It’s the kind of story that makes me glad I do what I do, and that I decided to chase my ambitions when I was young. Getting published was the top item on my to-do list, and the loftiest of all my professional aspirations. But getting there took great perseverance, considerably more than was required to get through a few sick days with a baby.
The first time I tried to get an agent I was twenty seven. I had just completed my first full length manuscript and I was feeling pretty hyped about it. Not many people could produce a finished book, right? At least that’s what I thought, that it was a massive achievement, and that when I packaged it off to a handful of not-so-carefully selected agents with red string binding no less, I was so sure I would get an offer of representation. I had the naive certainty that most agents were just waiting around for manuscripts like mine to drop onto their desk. Maybe there would even be a fight for it. How wrong was I?
Because that first manuscript wasn’t all that good, and no agent in existence wanted to represent it. But during the writing process I had no idea that what I was producing wasn’t good enough. And in hindsight I’m glad that I didn’t, because if I had realised I might not have made it through to the end. Imagine setting out on the journey to write a book for close to a year, knowing at the beginning that you weren’t going to succeed in finding it a home. You need a degree of blind self-certainty to write a book for the intention of publication, to dedicate over 800 hours to the creation of something that nobody has even asked for. But if that first book isn’t picked up by an agent you have no option but to start book two from a different perspective. You can no longer blind yourself that the book you are setting out to write will be the one that’s get’s you a deal. Instead you have to fall back on the hopes and dreams that drove you to start writing in the first place, and most people know how flimsy a companion hope can be. And in the face of knowing that it might not be the book to get you an agent, you still have to believe that it will be.
Perseverance and self-belief drive you forward. They force you to get better. There’s a famous adage, although I have no idea who coined the phrase initially: a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. And it’s so true. The fact I pay for my mortgage with the words I put onto a page is proof that I have moved from the realms of hopeful hobbyist to professional author, it’s just that it took another seven books before I could do that. Perseverance made that happen, helping me get roughly 1,000,000 words written before I wrote the book that secured me representation and a book deal. But am I any different now to back then?
And the answer is no, not really. Did I get better at my craft? I’d like to think so, but still my first drafts look as horrible as those I wrote eight years ago. So as I string up a new whiteboard and scribble the words ‘book four’ onto it, I still don’t know if it will be a success when it’s finished. In fact I don’t even know if I have a contract for it yet. So my perseverance to write drives me on in the same way it did when I was chasing an agent nine years ago. It will keep me in my chair when everything else is telling me to take a break. And that same perseverance will drive me on tomorrow when I wake up at five in the morning with a stuffy nose and sore throat to see a smiling face staring back at me from the cot next to my bed. Because when something’s worth it, when you really want it, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it a reality.
The post Christmas period has got to be one of the worst times of the year for feeling good about ourselves. The excitement of the festivities is over, our bank balances are a reality we can’t escape, and the world around us seems concerned with how we are going to improve ourselves in the New Year. People ask what our New Year's Resolution is going to be, as if we need to identify our mistakes from the departing year and see what we need to do better in the year ahead. Losing weight is a typical one, and no doubt somewhere out there is a gym offering twelve months membership for the price of six, which if you’re not a gym person to start with is about eleven months longer than you’re realistically going to need.
I’m a fan of Christmas, and love everything about it, but I’m pretty much the Scrooge of New Year. Christmas is all about coming together with people we love, about nurturing relationships with ourselves and others. New Year on the other hand is about accepting that your relationship with yourself needs work, that ultimately there is something about the material of your life that needs to change. Yes, it’s about self improvement, but only by first accepting that the starting point is ultimately one of inadequacy.
While some people might find this a good starting point and look forward to making a change on the first day of the New Year, a smoker for example who wants use it as a springboard to a healthier life, there is a huge pressure about marking one single day as the turning point for change. It renders all other 364 days of the year as somehow less valuable for taking steps towards a positive shift in your life, as if time is infinite and we can afford to waste it. Mae West once said that you only live once, but that once is enough if you live right, and it’s a good rule to live by. Making every day count. Conversely there are also people who put off making resolutions full stop, as if this somehow frees them from the ties of January 1st. But waiting for New Year to make the change we crave, or making the decision to avoid following your dreams on that day, ultimately means giving ourselves permission to delay chasing the life we really want.
When I was younger I used to enjoy giving myself a challenge on January 1st, making changes as we rang in the New Year. Some of the things I promised myself over the years were that I’d give up smoking, that I’d join a gym, and that I’d write my first novel. Giving up smoking on New Year’s Day, a bank holiday spent socialising in the company of other smokers rendered that resolution moot before I even woke up with the hangover from the last night of the previous year. The gym in January is always packed, and I found myself queuing for the treadmill. I haven't enjoyed being in such close proximity to other peoples' sweat since I spent my youth on the edge of a mosh pit. As for writing in January . . . that was more promising, but still my attempts amounted to nothing more than a few chapters of a badly planned psychological thriller that never really got off the ground.
But since then I have given up smoking. I have found an exercise routine that I enjoy because I’ve made it part of my life. I've written nine novels, if you count my self-published work and pending manuscripts. But none of these things happened because of promises I made to myself on New Year’s Eve. Instead, it’s because I made the changes to do the things I wanted because they couldn’t wait. I began working towards them when they were right for me, and when not doing them was no longer an option. They stopped being resolutions, and instead became dreams of a better life – as I saw it - and things I couldn’t live without.
So now as I look back on the year passed I use it as a chance to see not where I’m going wrong or what I need to change, but as a chance to see what I’ve achieved over the last twelve months and take stock of where I’m at with my aims. To be kind to myself and be thankful of what I’ve done and for what I have. And I hope what I find is that there is not some pending wish that I have left hanging. But if there is, I probably don’t want it enough to chase it anyway, so I can give myself a break and stop worrying about it. After all, there’s always next year.
With all the best intentions, writing a book takes quite a bit of time. My first book took me at least a year to write, working at night and at the weekends, fitting it around work and life. And setting out on that journey, uncertain whether or not I would be able to sustain it long enough to make it from day one, when I was sitting at a blank screen, all the way through to the final sentence. To keep showing up, doing the work and putting in the hours takes a lot of positivity, self belief, and optimism. To sit and work for such a long time without any knowledge as to whether or not your work will ever be read, seen, purchased, or even finished takes a degree of courage. So when you put it out there, either as a self-published author or via the traditional publishing route as I did with MY SISTER, seeing the first critiques coming in can be a nerve-wracking time.
And once the book is ‘out there’ the aim is obviously to get it in front of readers. With a bit of luck the first reviews will be positive. It’s a good start if they are. And it’s possible to form relationships with bloggers and early readers who are keen to support debut writers. Their reviews will focus on the best elements of your work and be encouraging in their critique. But there will always come a point when somebody reads your book and hate it.
Back when I wrote my first book I had no concept of this. I thought it was possible to write a book and have vast swathes of people enjoy it without any haters. My positivity spread over into my agent submission process, which elicited my first negative reviews in the form of rejection slips. There’s nothing more direct than no. At the time I was surprised; I naively thought that not all that many people got their act together long enough to write a whole book, so obviously out of all these agents I was sending it too – there were lots - somebody would literally be waiting on my envelope and my sample chapters, nicely bound with red string, thank you very much. Nobody wanted it.
And it didn’t get much better after that. Of course there were some well-meaning friends and relatives who ‘loved’ it, and actually a few people who I don’t know had some great things to say about it after I self published it on Amazon. But the negative reviews obviously came too. They focused on the edit – which was really just me looking for typos – the poor cover – which I knocked together on Paint, and the fact that some people didn’t even think it constituted a thriller. But when I chose to ignore the one word ‘boring’ reviews and actually took the time to digest what some people took the time to say, the negative reviews were spot on, even if reading the negative comments about a year’s work kind of hurt.
Since then I have received all sorts of criticism from readers. When you are self-publishing getting your book in front of readers is hard, and getting those readers to review it once they’re done is harder still so you have to take the rough with the smooth. But at the time I valued the genuine criticism because it was the only feedback I was getting. Agent’s rejection slips did nothing to tell me where I was going wrong. But the reviews made it possible to look for trends, recurring comments that acted as pointers so that I could improve my writing.
After MY SISTER was published reviews were much easier to come by. My publisher worked hard to get my book in front of book bloggers and reviewers, and before it was even published the reviews were coming in. But that still doesn’t mean they are all positive. And just this week I completed a hashtag search on Instagram and found somebody posting that they didn’t really like my book. In fact, they didn’t even finish it. Nothing sucks more than that.
But what I have realised since the early days of self-publishing is that the reviews are none of my business. My job as the writer is to write a book, hope that it’s good enough to get published, and hope that more people like it than don’t. And so even once the writing process is over the need to keep that optimism and self-belief has never been greater. Fortunately writers have this in abundance. Otherwise we’d never get the book written in the first place.
Anybody who follows my Instagram page will know that I spent five hours in a paediatric outpatient department today. It was a pretty torturous experience; the background noise of babies grumbling, the lethargy of tired parents losing their cool, and tears as a cheeky boy snatched a rice cake from an unsuspecting baby girl. At times it felt as if we would never make it out of there, especially when they informed us that they’d lost my daughter’s notes. But as we had little choice about being there when it's something as important as our child's health we grit our teeth and got on with it, coming up with every unimaginable way to prevent the inevitable meltdown. We didn’t avoid it, but still, we got through it.
When I signed with Headline back in 2015 it was a huge moment for me. The idea of having a book deal had at one point seemed like an unattainable dream, back when I was writing without an agent and collecting rejection slips with each passing day. But I kept going with a quiet optimism, and a belief that one day I would succeed in finding somebody who believed in my novel as much as I did. Still, when I received the email to say my book had sold I was speechless. But not only because MY SISTER had sold to a great publisher, but because they had also decided to buy a book I was yet to write.
Now that kind of faith in my ability to provide something that was not only attractive to the publisher but salable to an ever fluid market brought with it a set of new anxieties for me. I was immensely proud, but also scared; I had never written a novel to order before. I had always done my own thing. But with the editing process for MY SISTER complete, I had to start my second, contracted, psychological thriller.
It began easily enough; unplanned and uncontrolled. That was how every book started back then. I got an idea and ran with it. But when you are writing to meet contractual deadlines, and a synopsis that you provided, writing with such freedom is unsustainable. Because going off on every random tangent without a destination is not without consequence. Book two grew not only in size but complexity. But as it grew it began to veer further and further from its brief. The synopsis seemed less relevant the further I progressed, and a meeting with my agent left me with the impression that I didn’t understand my own book; by then I was a few drafts and 110,000 words in. That's about nine months of work that had stopped making sense.
And the hardest thing to admit as my submission deadline approached, was that I wasn't really happy with where I had ended up. Quite simply, book two had grown into a monster. It was much like today’s hospital visit - there was a whole lot of fuss, with people running around all over the place, but when it came to the plot, much like my daughter's notes, it was lost.
I wrestled with it a bit longer but with the pressure of deadlines looming right around the corner I submitted it to my agent. I knew I needed some guidance, but the hardest thing to admit to both myself and her, was that if I'd have been searching for representation at that time I wouldn't have submitted that manuscript. I knew it was far from ready. Obviously my editor knew that too and we arranged a meeting, and I planned a trip to the UK. And as I boarded an early flight to London on a crisp December day in 2016, knowing that about seven hours later I would have to explain how I planned to resolve the issues with my mess of a manuscript, I was struck by an overwhelming thought; I needed to write another book. Plenty of great writers will tell you not to give up on something because it got hard, but I knew drastic action was the only way forward. So instead of working on my edits during the flight I wrote a new synopsis. It was a new book, but one that without the first draft of book two might never have come to mind. And the gamble worked. My editor loved it. All I had to do was go back to the drawing board, start from chapter one. And oh yes, could I do it in just a few months? I decided I could at least try.
With a lot of time at my desk I got the book written in the two months proposed. I slipped away from life at the weekends and worked early and until it was late. And after submitting to my agent I got the email I was waiting for: she loved the book. Fortunately my editor did too.
In the year it took me to rework the mess of the first draft into the final manuscript a lot has changed. I bought a house while it was still being built, managed to move in. I lost a father to cancer, and spent six unforgettable weeks sitting at his bedside. And recently, just after I got my copy edits back I too became a mother when we adopted our beautiful baby girl. In this last year book two has grown, and I have grown with it. It has been the most challenging book I have ever written. It has been one of the hardest years I think I have lived. But last Friday I submitted my copy edits to my editor. That means we are nearly there. It means that book two is nearly finished. It means, just like today, with a little bit of grit, I got through it.
BETWEEN THE LIES is due to be released on 12th July 2018