Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I used to be like as a writer when I first started, and the kind of practices I used to enjoy. And in the first instance, I came to an unexpected conclusion; that in some ways, I used to be more committed to my routines, and more capable of using my time wisely. Perhaps I am being a little unfair on myself, because essentially since beginning to work full time as a writer I also became a full-time mum until my daughter went to school, and since then we have all being dealing with lockdowns. There was a short period while my daughter was at nursery when I had full working days, but then she wasn’t sleeping through the night, and there was nothing about that period that I could really call routine. Perhaps I have never actually been a full-time writer until now. And that realisation leaves me with the question as to what kind of routine I actually want to create.
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. But while it was a dream of mine, I never thought it would be a reality. When we were at school having career discussions, telling somebody that I wanted to be a novelist never seemed like a ridiculous answer. They were looking for a structure, a plan. Which degree, which university type answers. So, when it came to choosing a career path, I plumped for a safe option. I studied science, and ended up working in cardiology in the NHS. Neither are choices I regret, but while I was working exclusively as a scientist, I never felt fulfilled creatively. There was always something missing, but I wasn’t sure I knew what it was.
I think it can be quite hard when you have a creative dream in your heart, to know how, where, and when to express it.
My first notes for book ideas were made on sticky post it notes, written while I walked around the hospital pushing an ECG or ultrasound machine. I’d be writing plot ideas and character profiles while I made my way to my next patient, and then keep all the notes in my tunic pocket. I think most of those early ideas were flimsy at best, but they were the first seeds of the career I have today. It was the first time I gave myself the freedom to work towards pursuing the creative aspirations that until then I hadn’t spoken of.
Besides the stream of ideas I used to note down during working hours, I had no writing routine as such to speak of. I was probably about 21 or 22 years old when I first tried to write a book, freehand, badly executed, and in its final state no more than a few pages long. I didn’t find it easy to find my voice, or even know what it was I wanted to say. I kept making notes, but the older I got, I knew that if ever I was ever going to try to live into the dream of becoming a writer, I had to try to get past that first awkward chapter. It wasn’t until I took a trip to Poland and visited the concentration camp Auschwitz, that I came up with a story that I thought might have some merit to it. The first draft manuscript came in at something like 70,000 words, and it was a medical thriller about a euthanasia program in a dystopian society. It wasn’t easy to get past the early doubts, but I wrote in in the evenings, during break time at work, and during annual leave until it was finished. It felt like I had climbed a literary Everest when I finally typed The End.
One manuscript quickly turned into six. Having relocated to the other side of Europe, finding an agent was a little harder then, and as there was no such thing as a digital submission back in 2011, I set about self-publishing each book I wrote. Each one got a little better then its predecessor, and I found editors and designers to help make my products the best they could be. My routine became all about books. And in Spring 2015 I was ready to publish my seventh title. That book was called First Born, and it was about a woman whose mother dies, and her return to her childhood home alongside her very troubled sister for the funeral. But a chance conversation with another writer who wanted to chat about what it takes to find an agent and/or self-publish, made me second guess my own choices. Despite having enjoyed some success in terms of sales of my early books, I began to wonder why I was no longer looking for an agent. I realised I didn’t really have an answer. So, I held off self-publishing that book, and set about looking for an agent. That book, First Born, eventually went on to secure me the representation of my agent, and it sold in seventeen international territories as My Sister.
Every day during that period was dedicated to work. That version of me had hours to do it, was obsessed by the very idea of it. I read every book I could, writing all week long, including the weekends. When it came to getting an agent, or publishing schedule, or tasks I had to do, I had spreadsheets for each, a diary, a plan of attack for every step along the way. I was in charge of everything, and for a control freak like me, that was easy. But was 2015 me more dedicated or capable than who I am today? I don’t think so. I used to think hours spent were proportionate to just how much I wanted to publish my work. Now I see it a little differently.
Me in 2015 had more time, for sure. But the same love of the written word burns within me now as it did when I sat down to write my first ideas, and the joy of publishing a new title only grows each time I do it. Perhaps now even more so, because I realise what a privilege it is to have this opportunity. So, while I no longer spend fifteen hours a day at my desk, I think that over the course of the last seven years, I’ve learnt that I no longer need to. Writing isn’t something that happens during specific moments in my day. It isn’t a routine. It’s there in everything I do. And so I think there is no routine that will make me a better writer. Writing perhaps should be considered more like a practice, in the same way that meditation or yoga are. Only a willingness to commit to the act of writing can improve your skill. To be committed to perfecting a story. To developing a writing practice that nurtures creativity and provides an outlet for your ideas. Which now that I come to think about it, is what I’ve been doing all along.
I don’t think there is a routine I want per se. The lack of a routine is what has allowed my writing to develop. A routine would suggest always doing the same, and I don’t want to do that. I want to give ideas a chance to grow. So I will practice my writing each day, in the knowledge that from developing my skill, stories will continue to form. This, producing books, is perhaps the only routine I want after all.