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.
February has been another great month for me with regards to my reading. I set out at the beginning of January to read one book per week. Sometimes I think that will never happen, and other times it seems like a massive underestimation in what I can do. Achieving that usually revolves around my daughter’s sleeping patterns so my reading this month has been up and down. I wake up at six a.m. seven days a week with a plan to read for an hour before the house wakes up. When this happens I knock out a book in a few days. When it doesn’t it might take me two weeks to finish. And for the last two weeks it’s as if my daughter was just waiting to hear the alarm, and has been merrily waking up at the same time.
Not one to be put off, I have decided to read anyway while she is with me. Sometimes it works; I get to keep my book and she gets one of hers. Other times she plays with my Kindle, which is apparently a lot of fun to turn on and off and change the font size. I figure even if I don’t get my reading done, she gets exposed to books as a normal thing in everyday life, so either way is a winner for me.
So without further ado, here’s the rundown of what I’ve been reading this month.
STILL ME by Jojo Moyes.
I have absolutely loved each book in this series. Me Before You remains my favourite but this comes in a very close second. I loved the twists and turns in Lou’s life, and everything about her life in New York seemed so perfect for her journey. I’m really hoping there is another story in this series yet to come because I am not ready to say goodbye to Lou Clark just yet.
LOST FOR WORDS by Stephanie Butland
Stephanie Butland was a new author for me, but she has quite a back catalogue which I will certainly be dipping into in the future. I really enjoyed this book, loved the quirky characters, and their lives which revolved around books. I could really imagine the book shop, and I didn’t see the conclusion coming so there were still some surprises for me at the end.
4321 by Paul Auster
I set off at a great pace with this one but eventually it got the better of me. I got a few hundred pages in, and while it is extremely well written and I think would appeal to many readers, this one wasn’t for me at the present time. I hate it when that happens, I feel like I’m letting not only myself down, but also the writer too. I haven’t given up on this yet because I do think it’s a great story, and such a great premise, but I have for now taken a break. So far, unfinished.
SLEEP by C.L.Taylor
I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book and I am so pleased I did. Absolutely loved it. It is claustrophobic, tightly wound, and I did not see the conclusion coming until near the end so the payoff was huge. If you like reading thrillers like The Ice Twins by S. K. Tremayne, I think you will love this. If you haven't read that, that also comes highly recommended. It’s out on April 4th.
SUMMER AT THE KINDNESS CAFÉ by Victoria Walters
This was my last complete book for February and it did not disappoint. I’m trying to vary genre as I read at the moment to keep the variety going, and this was a lovely uplifting story to follow the dark weavings of the previous book I read. If you love feeling good while you read, then this is the book for you. The characters are loveable, the premise was something we could all learn from, and it just left me with a great big smile on my face. What’s not to like about that?
The stages of writing a novel are many and varied, and some of them are easier than others. Take the final copy edit as an example. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to read my own book and look for typos, as long as I can find the will to tolerate reading my own material for the hundredth time and accept that I won’t find any mistakes, even though they are there. But I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel to be the very first. I have just reached the end of writing the first draft, and at no point during the revision process will it ever be this easy again.
Now that’s not to say that coming up with a worthy idea or manoeuvring my characters around for the duration of 90,000 is a doddle. On top of that, coming up with a decent hook is no mean feat. How many books have I written only to realise after writing the first draft that the hook needs work before it goes to a publisher or agent? Hint; every book I’ve ever written. But there is a certain freedom to be found in the mentality of writing a first draft, for me at least, which I think most writers who do this on a full time basis appreciate. That freedom comes from the knowledge that the first draft is allowed to be really, really shit.
Many writers have talked about writing a first draft, and one of my favourite quotes about this process comes from John Dufresne; The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but get it written. There should be no hesitations or concerns about language or poetic phrasing. Just get the damn thing written. You can edit it pretty later. And so if upon a first reading I find that the first draft is any good, even a little bit good, then I think that is a huge stroke of luck in my favour.
I often think of writing a book as a bit like crossing a torrential, raging river. Writing a first draft is the same as throwing in great big boulders to create stepping stones so that you can just about get from one side to the next without falling in the water and getting swept downstream. There’s nothing glamourous or elegant about it, and the point is simply to get from one side to the other by any means possible while your agent and publisher wait on the bank for a safe crossing to be created. Of course, they are carrying their own tools to help you, much more sophisticated tools that can be used later in the process, but they are still waiting on the other bank while you make that first exploratory journey. They don’t want to get on that crossing or get involved in its engineering until it already looks like a stable path.
So right now the stage I am at is that I’m back on the bank with the whole crew behind me, waiting to test the route I have laid. I’m standing there, looking at what I’ve done, and wondering whether the path is going to hold. This first edit is the hardest, but also the most rewarding period in writing a book. It’s the point when all the major players arrive at their stations, when you move your characters not only from A to B, but give them a purpose and motive behind it. There’s thought, not just from the writer, but from the characters. In real life we all have friends whose behaviour we can predict, whose responses we can anticipate, and creating a book full of characters with the purpose of telling a story is like getting to know new friends. If characters don’t start to think for themselves, ergo, directing the way of the narrative, the chances are they are not yet developed sufficiently to do so; you just don’t know them well enough yet.
I edited my first chapter yesterday and it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. My first draft comes in at just under 90,000, and it wasn’t until I hit 75,000 words that I really had the first lightbulb moment, that thought when I suddenly realised how to link the beginning to the end, and the relevance of all the major events mid-way through. And what is great to realise now is that those early stepping stones I tentatively laid just over a month ago right at the start of my journey serve a very nice purpose. Sometimes it’s necessary for a complete do-over, but this time it would seem that my early chapters, although they need work, serve as a great foundation for what I really want to say.
Although I might have reached the end of what I consider the easiest stage of writing a novel, I am about to commence the hardest. I’ve got my feet back in the water, and I’m praying that the stones I have set in place hold up as I expect them to. So far they look as if they just might.
This year I decided to set myself a challenge when it came to reading books. The truth is, while I like to think I read a lot, there are some weeks that I barely make it through a few chapters. I get easily distracted by life and a month down the line I realise that I haven’t finished a single title. It’s not because I don’t like reading, I love it. Just the general distractions of life like cleaning, family, friends, and yes, TV, end up taking priority. So this year I decided to make reading one of my priorities. I wake early, make myself a coffee, and read for between half an hour to an hour each morning, and am reading each night too. I have set myself the challenge of reading fifty-two books by the end of the year.
For some readers that’s not much. Hell, I just saw a post on Instagram where the person had read twenty-two books in January. With al the will in the world I will never be able to read that much. But when I am focussed on reading I know it keeps me focussed on other areas in my life too. Writing for one. The more I read the greater my word count. That’s a great big tick in reading’s favour. My year really seems to have started out with absolute discipline, hitting my reading target, meditating almost every night, and plus I have just started learning the piano. Whether that will last’s I cannot say, but so far I love it. It’s a great way to take a break from writing instead of eating whatever is in the kitchen just a few steps away. All I need to do is swivel my chair and I can practice my chords.
Now, let’s be clear; I’m no book reviewer. I’ll leave that to the people who know how to do it. I’m just sharing what I read. And it’s been a great month. I’ve really enjoyed these books. And while for the last ten years I have claimed that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is my favourite book, this month has changed that. There’s a new champion. Read on to find out what took the top spot.
First up was THE WISDOM OF SALLY RED SHOES. I read this book with much excitement after loving Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things. This book didn’t disappoint me, and I think readers who enjoyed her first book will also enjoy this story filled with rich, eccentric characters.
Next up was A LITTLE LIFE. I bought this book almost three years ago, after it made the Man Booker shortlist in 2015. I had just met my agent, and a trip to the bookshop was on the cards. That day I flew back to Cyprus with six hardbacks in my bag. I have no idea what the others were, or why this has remained on my shelf for so long, but this book will stay in my heart forever. Never have I cried so many times, never have I thought so much about a book in the hours when I’m not reading it, and never has a book stayed with me in such a way as this one has. My husband even asked me when I was going to be finished with it because I was starting to become withdrawn. I went on a journey, and had a definite book hangover. A beautiful and heart-breaking story I will never forget. My new favourite. I can’t see it ever being replaced. Jude and Willem forever.
Luckily I selected another great book to follow on from that. The next book on my TBR was DARK PINES. This is another that has been on my shelf for a while after being sent the ARC, but it got displaced in the proceedings by the arrival of my beautiful daughter. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to discover the wonderful world Will Dean created. The follow up is RED SNOW, and has just been released. Can’t wait to get my hands on that one, but with postage to Cyprus I think I might have to wait a couple of weeks to slip back into the Nordic world of Tuva Moodyson.
The last book of January was I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. This is, embarrassingly, my first book by Maya Angelou. It is heartfelt, informative, and an education in resilience in the face of discrimination and hardship. A wonderful read.
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Starting a new book is always a great feeling. It is so effortless as you ease into the first chapters, the word count creeping up and up and up, without it often seems, any effort at all. It happens rarely, unless you are the type to start and stop projects, or perhaps if you write short stories. For me it happens once, maybe twice a year, and it is a moment I always relish. Because the truth is that the process of writing this new book will never be easier than it is today.
The beginning is a time characterised by simplicity. The characters are two dimensional, easy going types, who don’t demand too much. I’m not one of those method writers who think of their characters as real people, but I’m also not averse to the odd conversation here and there which starts something along the lines of, ‘But what do you want to do now?’ or an exchange similarly of that nature. So I can move them around like pawns, creating the early landscape of the novel. They never fight back, and nothing ever feels wrong. Right now, whatever I decide is OK. The straightforward nature of a first draft in the earliest stages is, quite frankly, intoxicating.
At this stage it feels entirely possible to crack out close to 3000 words in a couple of hours and feel blissfully confident about what lies ahead. I make mental calculations, presuming a manuscript will be finished within the month, less than that if things go really well. The likelihood of that happening in reality is slim to non-existent, but at this point it feels not only entirely reasonable, but guaranteed. I make these same incorrect assumptions every time.
Writers are as a species, eternal optimists. It’s only possible to sit down and write these early chapters because of it. There are few jobs where one must work for months on end, sometimes under improbably uncomfortable conditions, where your physical and mental health declines and your diet becomes a concentrated mix of toast and cornflakes and coffee, without the promise of ever getting paid or selling a single copy. Perhaps the illusion of self-importance or relevance carries us through, the immovable belief that we are creating something that people will like, that will resonate months or years down the line when it comes to selling it to an editor. But then again it might just be the magic of this first draft, because there really is a certain kind of enchanted wonder as the world grows all around you, until one day you go from a quiet solitary office to spending your days in a world, surrounded by people, histories, and emotions entirely of your own creation. There is always a point in the road, close to completion, where things begin to get easier, but 90% of the journey from this point on is uphill.
So soon enough this sense of wonderment will fade, around the same sort of time as the cornflakes intake grows exponentially. It will get harder. For me it usually hits somewhere between the 20,000 and 30,000 word mark. By my earlier estimations that should be by the end of the week, but it’ll be more likely late February. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy it.
When I set out to write a book, any book, it is always with the intention to get it published. And yet when that happens it always comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s as if I forget all the things in motion, put into place months before, and all the work it took me and other. And then suddenly it sneaks up on me like a good friend in a packed bar; always welcome and momentarily the focus, and yet so surrounded by distractions you can’t really sit down and enjoy the moment for all the surrounding noise.
I should take the time today to appreciate what has happened, this monumental step in my career as a writer. These are the days I work towards. If publication day isn’t the pinnacle, then what is? And the truth about this book, my second tradition title, is that is was a beast that proved difficult to tame. As my acknowledgements claim, it was the first time I was writing to somebody else’s deadline, and under contract, and there was a point where the whole thing got away from me a little. It took a rewrite (a few actually) and a great edit to hone it into a book worthy of publication. I should celebrate that with some quiet time, block out the noise, and reconnect with that old friend I brought into creation close to eighteen months ago.
And yet my to do list is full. I have several other projects on the go, none of which I will mention here for the sake of and deference to superstition. But my morning is full and until those tasks are checked from my list, I will struggle to be able to really focus on the celebration that is publication.
But imagine if life events were the same. Imagine focussing on exam success before you even took the paper. Or celebrating a first wedding anniversary before the proposal was even made. A child’s birth before you knew about the conception. That’s what we do as writers, exist as vehicles of endless forward-facing optimism. It’s a strange existence to privately celebrate and work towards future successes that may never even come to fruition when so many others are focussed on something you have already ticked off the list and scratched from your daily thoughts.
My resolution for 2019 is to be more mindful and exist more in the present. And although that world is overused of late, there is a reason for that. Because the connection to the present is what makes us real, the sensation of being cemented in our here and now. It’s something we all crave and ultimately need. That’s certainly what my daily meditation practice is about, a personal reminder that the world I inhabit for a large proportion of my professional life exists in its current form only in my head. That’s certainly why I keep a diary of goals and daily gratitude mantras that force me, no wrong word, rather that it requests that I look back at the end of each day and be thankful for the small privileges and successes of the sunrise and sunset behind me. In my daily life I don’t want to wait for eighteen months before I realise I am thankful for something. I want to enjoy it as and when it happens. Such small things are worthy of this celebration, even the half an hour in bed in the morning when I get to read uninterrupted, created by sacrificing forty-five minutes sleep. That time block, with a book in one hand and my first cup of coffee in the other, I know will be the first thing I write down on my list of reasons to be thankful tonight.
So, let me take a moment to pause. My second psychological thriller is released in paperback today. Today. Two years of work culminated in this day. I’m going to hold off on the relentless push to move forward and instead enjoy the present after all. Because years ago, when I only dreamed of this, it felt completely unreachable. Now I’m sitting next to twenty copies of my book. That is something worth celebrating.
Right now over on twitter you can win one of two signed copies of Between The Lines. Join me over there are enter to win a signed copy. If you haven't read My Sister I'll even throw a copy of that in too.
As I begin a new year I always liked to make an effort to look back on the previous year, but never resolved to make any New Year’s resolutions. I have always thought them a total waste of time. How many people join a gym in January, only to end up paying a year of subscription fees for no more than a handful of visits? Nope, I didn’t want to be that sucker. I am a long-time subscriber to the Start Now mantra; I believed that if I wanted something badly enough, I’d do it before the first of January of the incoming year.
I don’t know whether it’s age, being a (fairly) new parent, or whether there’s an incoming full moon to which I can attribute blame, but this year I felt differently. As the year was drawing to a close I felt myself wanting to make resolutions for change. It wasn’t that I got anything particularly wrong in 2018, but still I felt there was room for a reset, and the need for some updating when it came to my priorities.
Parenthood, I have learned, is the most humbling of experiences. What you think you need soon becomes a thing open for debate. Take sleep for example. I quite liked it to be honest, but we have fallen somewhat out of love of late, and the truth is I have a daughter whose a pretty good sleeper. What about ‘me time’? The less said about that the better. I don’t even do the unmentionables in private anymore. And as for ego, that literally packs it’s bags and walks out of the door the moment you arrive home with a baby. I do things now that I would never have dreamed I would do as a parent, because yes, I was one of those single people who rolled her eyes at screens on the table during dinner, and often professed that I would never allow my child to eat food in the supermarket before it had been purchased. Now I realise you just do whatever it takes, and we always leave a trail of breadcrumbs as we move through the aisles.
So where do priorities come into all of this, especially for somebody like me working from home. Until September last year I worked when my child slept. It was a challenge now when I look back, and by the time summer arrived I was tired of the daily battle to increase word count or focus on edits. Nursery recreated the working day for me, and that helped me establish a sense of routine again. But still, even though I suddenly had an extra six or seven hours a day at my disposal, somehow, I still always felt as if I was chasing my tail. I couldn’t move forwards because my priorities were all over the place. I didn’t really know what I wanted from my time.
This understanding made me look at my life and want to strip it back. I got excited about the Kon Marie method and promptly delivered 50% of all our household belongings to the charity shop, along with what was probably more like 80% of my wardrobe. They were knee jerk reactions, and the truth is that the capsule wardrobe idea was a failure; a pair of white jeans on a summer holiday in Rome soon brought the reality of that idea into alarming clarity.
In stripping back my life I realised my priorities were less about possessions and clutter and more about values. What did I truly want from my now limited time? I wanted to write. I wanted the time to read. I realised I cared less about a new television series than I did the ability to enjoy reading two books in a week. I wanted to sleep for more than five hours a night, and find the sense of calm that was missing from my daily life. I wanted the time to connect with readers, one of the main reasons why I started writing in the first place.
In the weeks before Christmas I began a programme of meditation. I’m doing it every night, and I really think it helps with being calm and organised, and cope if the day eventually implodes. I started turning off the TV late at night and have since read three books in as many weeks. And on the first of January I began my first New Year’s resolution; keeping a goal-setting and gratitude journal on a daily basis. Sounds like hocus pocus, but I really think he helps me stay on track when it comes to working towards my priorities. And out of the blue today I received the loveliest email which further put everything into perspective. A reader emailed me to say they had read My Sister and that she really connected with the character Irini. She told me that because of reading my book she found the courage to open up to the parents from whom she had once been estranged and had begun asking for answers as to why they had abandoned her when she was a child.
When I set out to write My Sister I was thinking of my own future child that I wished to adopt, hoping to demonstrate that sometimes unthinkable actions like their own abandonment might hide logical explanations for difficult truths. Placing a child for adoption to the outsider seems like the most unthinkable decision in the world, but if the option to keep that child puts them at risk, perhaps seeking a new future for that child is the safest option. This feedback from my reader is more valuable to me than any number of sales; to have connected with somebody in such a way, to help them find a route to move forward and define their priorities in life is the highest of privileges. If I never sold another copy of My Sister again, writing it will now always have been worthwhile.
Realising how I want to spend my time, knowing my own priorities as I step into this new year has become my resolution. I know I want to live more quietly, with less, which will ultimately I believe give me more. I want to focus on work to a greater extent, read with greater immersion, and continue along my path of meditation and reflection. And while these are all things I knew I wanted before the turn of a new year, still I didn’t really begin to seek them out. I realise now that sometimes it takes a trigger, whether that is the turn of a new year or connecting with a character in a book, to know what our real priorities are. When I look back on 2019, I want to know I did everything I could to live my life right. I suppose on some level, that’s all any of us want.
As any decent writer has said, I love to read. Besides on trains or in queues or during the lost hours at the hairdressers, my reading time is usually the evenings. The mornings constitute my work time, afternoons are dedicated to my daughter when she comes home from nursery, so books get whatever time is left after dinner. But when I am reading or editing my own manuscript prior to delivery I find it very difficult to focus on other books. It’s a combination of being tired from reading – yes, I know, I didn’t used to think that was a thing either – and wanting to stay focussed on only one story, namely the one I am trying to produce. So during the two weeks prior to manuscript delivery I tend to watch more TV in the evenings than at any other time in the year. If I can binge watch a new series, even better.
So last week as I worked to deliver on a deadline I spiralled into what can only be described as total obsession with a Netflix show called Money Heist (originally La Case de Papel). My husband got started first, watched half of the first episode with Greek subtitles because the show is in Spanish. Now I read Greek, but it turns out Spanish people talk really fast, and my Greek lexicon doesn’t stretch to criminality at the national mint. But it looked interesting so a quick shift into English subtitles (I can’t do the dubbing, even though it was very well done) gave me a chance to watch, and it took only minutes before I was hooked.
It’s fair to say that the rest of the evenings that week are a blur. We agreed upon on a dose of three to four episodes a night until it was done, and soon enough my first and last thoughts of the day concerned the success of the heist. The Spanish word Puta (bitch) began to pepper our conversations, from expressing any level of discontent to general interaction. For example, Puta, pass the salt. Puta fetch me a toilet roll; it was all very gender neutral. It’s true to say now that it’s over that I might be a little bit in love with the Professor, the brains behind the whole thing, and I am still humming a communist Italian revolutionary song used in the show on a daily basis. Ciao bella, Ciao bella, ciao ciao ciao.
You might ask where my life and normal personality went during that time, but for that week I lived and breathed another life, that of a robber involved in a heist for which I was totally invested in the success of the operation. At times I cried. I empathised with the characters. I cheered their successes and detested the police. Of course you’re robbing a bank, I thought at one point. What other choice did you have? In real life I’m the kind of person who will reverse a couple of times to make sure I am equally positioned between two parking lines to give my fellow citizens a chance to open their doors. If you live in Cyprus you will understand that is not the norm. But you get the point; I’m law abiding and fairly considerate. But for one joyous week I was rooting for the crooks, and any beating or gunshots or anarchic terror inflicted on the innocent hostages seemed to me entirely reasonable. And that is for me what good fiction is all about.
Somehow, I could watch this show and still work on my book during the day, so that was a winning combination. But there is a lot of talk about how bad for us binge-watching TV really is, and there is no doubt this is true if it becomes a continuous habit. I have even banned screen time for my almost two-year-old because I know it negatively affects her behaviour. So why did I let myself get so carried away? Because getting lost in a piece of brilliant fiction every now and again is a wonderful experience. It’s an escape into another world in which we get the chance to live vicariously, in lives so different to ours. Whether it’s books or television, I think the effect is the same. Yes there is a negative side to it if we use it as a tool of avoidance of real life problems, but fiction has the potential to entertain and make us happier. It is powerful. Connecting with wonderful characters helps us build empathy and provides us a chance to view the world in new ways. This is one of the reasons why I love writing so much. To have the chance to create these worlds for people is both a joy and a privilege.
There’s another season of Money Heist slated for 2019, but no specific release date yet. Hopefully that means it’s some way off because I need to begin a new manuscript soon if I am to keep on track. For my own sake I hope it will release in the later half of 2019. But before that there is also the little matter of Game of Thrones to deal with. I have three months before that’s due to begin. That’s not all that long for a full first draft when you don’t even know what you want to write. I suppose I better get to it. Time for another binge.
Something I have written about before on this blog is the fact that just over two years ago, I lost my father to cancer. Second only in significance to having a baby, this experience changed me so much as a person. It’s fair to say I took it quite hard. Maybe I would have found it just as hard if he died suddenly of a heart attack, or was in an accident, but for me the experience of losing him slowly, and watching him suffer left a lasting impression, and a whole bunch of memories I wished I didn’t have.
For close to seven weeks I lived in a limbo, not working, not living at home, and not even in my home country. For the most part I’d been living in my father’s apartment, spending the days at the hospital. I was fortunate to have other family around who fed and watered me on occasion, but I still went back to his place at the end of most days to a microwave meal for one and an empty arm chair at my side. People offered me to stay with them, but I turned them down. I needed the space and downtime. My only constant during that time was my father’s partner who was going through it all with me. She helped us keep some sense of routine, and just her presence seemed to ease the weight of what we were going through.
On one of these trips back to England during this time I took the last-minute option of a connecting flight via Lithuania with a seven-hour layover. I sat in a small café that overlooked the runway. I watched the light fade and the snow begin to fall as I waited for my flight and began to muse over the idea of a story. It was what I knew how to do. But the story that came to me wasn’t about my father dying, but rather the love I witnessed between him and his partner during those final weeks of his life. They had never lived together in the twenty years they shared, yet she remained at his bedside throughout, and did everything for him. When I couldn’t be there, I knew she was. And I realised something then; that while I was witnessing the worst life had to offer, I was also, on some level at least, also witnessing the best. Total, absolute, and unquestionable love.
Following my father’s death, I struggled to sit down at my computer and write much and wasted a lot of time on social media. My new home office had a double function as the planned bedroom for my dad to use when he came to visit, and I didn’t want to be in there. The shower we had put in downstairs just felt like a stupid waste of space and money. We were just about to order the sofa bed but cancelled the idea at the last minute. Nobody was going to use it then. I was supposed to be coming back from a running injury around the same time, but the last run I took was at 5 a.m. on a frosty morning in the UK when I couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t be bothered to get myself out because it all seemed pointless. You can call it what you like; a funk, depression, the blues. Grief or loss. It was in some way all those things. The funeral held three weeks later did help draw a line under the experience, but I knew that I needed to do something to get back on track.
And the idea that I had during that long Lithuanian layover kept coming to me. I wanted to write his story. A few weeks after the funeral when I returned to the UK for a meeting with my agent, I broached the idea of writing a love story. I am fortunate to have a wonderful agent who was amenable to the idea of me writing that novel, even though I had only ever shown her my dark side. But knowing I was going to write that story helped me begin to move forwards.
I couldn’t begin writing that story then due to other commitments; I edited one book, wrote another, and became a mother. There was no room for anything else. But in March of this year I sat down and wrote a provisional title for my father and his partner’s story and set about getting it written. I’m still working on it, but I have shared an early draft with my agent and I got a tentative thumbs up. It’s so strange in some ways to be writing something other than a thriller, but I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed writing a book this much in years. People and lives change, and the only thing you can do is be amenable to that change and see where life takes you. I’ll never stop missing my dad, but I’ll always be thankful that even in his death he taught me not only the true extent of what it means to love somebody, but also that it’s not memories that define you, but rather what you chose to do with them.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
Headline In Pre empt for debut thriller
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My Sister book review on writing.iw