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.
Last Thursday My Sister was released as a paperback. It was a great feeling to finally reach this point after such a long wait. The original manuscript was sold to my publisher back in 2015, and since then it’s been a steady process of editing, waiting for artwork, and biding my time until the release date approached. The original release was in the form of an eBook and trade paperback last April. I remember thinking that was the day upon which everything was riding, that a failure for the book to do well at that time meant it was all over for me as a writer. But fast forward twelve months, and I found myself once again feeling as if the latest release day held the key to the future.
The night before the trade paperback release I barely slept, then woke up with the jitters wondering what exactly would happen in the following twenty four hours. In reality I received a couple of bunches of flowers, about 100 twitter messages, and a sales order message from my editor. I couldn’t concentrate to do any writing for most of the day, and everything seemed to pass by in a bit of a blur without anything much really happening. This time around, despite my nerves about how the book would perform, my release day turned out to be a little different.
This time around I knew the score in advance; my editor had notified me about sales orders prior to release. That came as a huge relief because knowing that certain places like Tesco and Waterstones had placed an order, and that My Sister would be positioned in airports and train stations with W.H. Smiths, gave me the certainty that the general public would at least have the opportunity to find the book. Previously the sales channels were dominated by online vendors, and that always makes visibility more difficult, and therefore spontaneous purchases unlikely. Side note; the first person to send me a picture of My Sister on a sun lounger gets an extra special place in my heart.
Another difference this time related to my use of social media, which has been scaled right back since the arrival of my daughter. Yes, I’m still tweeting and I have lists created so that theoretically at least I don’t miss anything important, but the reality is I don’t check my accounts every day. Instantaneous responses are also pretty much a thing of the past, unless you strike the golden hours and tweet me during nap time.
The reality of the matter is that I spent this release day nursing a teething baby and taking her to the hospital for routine checks. I didn’t manage to organise Facebook advertising until the early evening, and I only checked my Amazon rank once. A year ago once an hour would have been the epitome of restraint. I did receive a lovely bunch of flowers from my editor once I arrived home, and only after the florist had already tired to deliver on two separate occasions earlier on in the day. It was only as the evening drew in that it really started to sink in that My Sister had been released for the final time, and that all across the UK it was visible to thousand of shoppers.
What has happened since release has been remarkable, and something new to me as an author. I know my publisher is happy so far, and that is obviously a huge relief. But hearing from people whom I have never met, telling me they loved my book, that they would like it to be one of their book club choices, and sending me pictures of the shelves in their local store has all been really exciting. It’s been great to receive so many messages from people around the world who are enjoying reading it. And in a week that was pretty good for book sales according to data from across the board (total consumer market value in excess of 30 million last week according to The Bookseller) I am just feeling very privileged to have my own little share of a rather large pie.
The stress that I endured the first time around, including the worry that if it didn't go so well I might get dropped by my publisher, while potentially valid, didn't get me anywhere. This time around, not being at my desk and barely even thinking about release day until my daughter was asleep made little difference to the success of the book. Sometimes stress does us a favour, helps get us through a challenge like a looming deadline or a difficult life event. But most of the time stress simply hinders our enjoyment of what might otherwise be a wonderful experience. So when my next book is released for the first time I intend to enjoy it for what it is; an opportunity to succeed, rather than an opportunity to stress over the very potential for failure.
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.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
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