LIFE Writing life

The joy of limbo

A bit of a weird post, this one, but please bear with me!

I wanted to write a post as a kind of virtual ‘bookmark’ to myself. To remind myself of this stage of my ‘story’ (sorry, terrible bookish puns will dry up eventually). It’s struck me lately that this period in my life – the run up to the publication of my first novel – is quite unlike any other time, and is possibly going to be the best bit of the whole thing. I wonder if other authors feel like this?

Allow me to explain, in case you think I’m bonkers. At the moment, The Rival has been signed off editorially, which means it requires no more work from me. Now I’m very proud of the book, but I’m also a bit sick to death of it, having read it approximately 8000 times, and worked on it for the best part of a year. All that hard slog is over now, and it’s ready to be ‘born’. It’s been edited and preened and pruned to perfection, and now all I have to do is wait for it to be unleashed on the world. And in that respect, I’m kind of in limbo.

But it’s the best type of limbo, as I’ve signed a contract, received some actual money for it (which by the way is no less of a thrill than I had hoped it’d be – someone paying you cold hard cash for something you created from nothing is absolutely awesome) and I know it will be published, which has given me a wonderful sense of validation I’ve never had before. But – and this is the critical bit – I’ve yet to bear the agony of a reviewer telling me it’s shit, or reading a GoodReads review that tells me the reader couldn’t be bothered to finish it, or find out that no one outside my family has bought a single copy.

Hopefully none of those things will happen. Or at least not all of them. But they are all possible, and have happened to much greater and more talented writers than me.

I am terrified of reviews. I wish I had the self-discipline not to read them, but of course I will. I’ll be checking every damn morning as soon as I wake up. Writing a book is so bloody achingly personal, and there’s something so painful in people telling you that something that you poured your soul into is a load of old crap. Or that your characters are unlikeable when you love them. Or that they guessed the twist (oh how reviewers love to tell you that they’ve guessed the twists! Clever old you!). I am DREADING it.

I’ve had my fair share of rejections – after all, getting a book deal is 99% about overcoming rejection and I like to think I have a pretty thick skin. As a journalist I’ve had my work edited until it’s unrecognisable and brushed off the bruises. But even though reviews are just rejections too, they’re so public, it’s somehow a different kettle of fish entirely. I am currently trying to develop tactics to stay sane when I read my first one-star review. I hope I won’t fall to pieces.

As for the book being a total flop, that’s another legitimate and massive fear. And as a control freak, it’s so hard to deal with the fact that the book’s success is not within my control at all. It’s about so many factors – timing, the market, whether or not particular retail buyers want to stock it, how the PR/marketing campaigns go…

A lot of authors have said that having your first book published can really impact your ability to write another one – as it’s so distracting and all-consuming, and confidence-knocking when you hear people tell you what you’ve written is crap. I suspect huge success is equally distracting – that immense pressure to live up to expectations with your next book. I was so conscious of this that I was determined to finish my second book before the first was published, and I have done, thankfully. But now I’m wondering if there’s time to squeeze out a third? Or how about I just push my publication date further and further into the future? Or how about it just never gets published at all, but someone just pays me to sit at home and write books? Would that be OK?

I hope this doesn’t sound too negative. It’s not meant to. I’m actually just celebrating the present moment, which really is a time of pure joy. My book is being published. I’ve achieved something I have wanted to do since I first learnt to read. And I haven’t had to deal with any of the hard stuff yet. I want to always remember how this feels – the pride of seeing my proof looking like a real book, the excitement of knowing a team of people love it and are 100% behind it. It’s a magical time, this joyful limbo. It feels a bit like being at the top of a rollercoaster, that split-second of peace before you hurtle downwards (and hopefully back up again!).

You can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and pre-order here if you want to make my day.

Writing life

Thoughts on a cover

Check me out – nothing for months and then two posts in one week! Can you tell I’m sitting on my hands at the moment, waiting to hear what my agent thinks of my latest manuscript?!

I heard from my publisher today that the proofs for THE RIVAL are at their offices, and soon to be sent to other authors, press and bloggers in the hope that they will enjoy it and write about it (and on that note, if you are one of the aforementioned crowd and would like one, please let me know!).

So I thought it was high time I officially shared my cover! I put the cover on my main website a while ago, but it was done without any fanfare so I wanted to give it a little bit of appreciation. Especially as I genuinely love it.

What many readers might not know is that the author has nothing to do with the process of designing the cover. In fact, I hadn’t heard a word about it until my editor randomly sent me their proposed cover out of the blue last year. My heart was properly thundering as I clicked on the attachment in her email, and I’m happy to say that it was love at first sight. I actually got goosebumps when I first looked at it, and I remember being both surprised and pleased at what the cover designer had come up with.

So without further ado…. here it is:

My first thought was that it was quite filmic, or even Netflixy, and that this was a Good Thing as I think it’s targeted at a similar demographic. I was also so pleased that they’d used two distinct faces on the cover, rather than anything more oblique. Psych suspense/thriller covers often have close-ups of things like crushed rose petals on their covers and I was keen that my book would stand out a bit from that crowd. The expressions on the women’s faces are absolutely perfect – it’s really creepy and draws you in I think!

I was surprised by the black and red – I’d never thought about those colours being on my book, as it’s a book about women and I guess (somewhat stupidly) I expected something a little softer. But I love how much it stands out, and I also love the blueish tint to the women’s skin, which makes the whole thing look really dark and mysterious.

The strapline is bloody genius too, and I only wish I could claim credit for it, but, like the title, it was all the work of the clever team at Quercus.

Can you tell I love it?! I hope you like it too.

You can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and pre-order here if you want to make my day.

Writing life

How I got my book deal

Hello, is there anyone still out there!? Long time, no blog I know. I’ve been quiet because I’ve been sitting on the most exciting news for the past six months or so (yes really, and anyone who knows me will know that patience is not my forte). But finally, it’s out there, my little news piece went live in The Bookseller recently, telling the world that Quercus will be publishing my novel, THE RIVAL, later this year.

When I was on submission, I pored over blog posts like this one. I don’t know why, it’s not like they were magic 8 balls that would reveal what would happen to my novel (ahem, I may have also asked a magic 8 ball what the outcome would be…). But somehow it made me feel less alone in the tortuous hell of a process that is being on submission and waiting for news.

My agent sent my book out to a select group of editors on a Thursday last year. And so of course on the Friday I was hoping that all ten editors would have fallen in love with it overnight and phoned her at 7am offering millions of pounds for it. That didn’t happen. In fact, nothing happened on that Friday. There was No News.

The weekend was fun. But by Monday we had some ‘positive noises’, which actually mean nothing I don’t think, but were like little gulps of oxygen on which I could try to stay alive. I’m exaggerating here for effect of course, but at times I did feel like I was running out of air. I don’t think anything can prepare you for it – it’s like waiting for your A level results but about a million times more amplified.

Then on the Tuesday, we had our first ‘turn down’ (my agent doesn’t call them rejections, which is both euphemistic and considerate of her!). It wasn’t bad news though – only that two editors in the same publishing house had read the novel, and one had decided it was better suited to the other, who was still reading. I was OK with that turn down, because it was a really positive one. I think I might have had another rejection that day too, but I didn’t really mind because my agent was feeling very positive that the other editor at the first house was likely to offer.

Wednesday rolled around, which was also the Faber Academy reading day. You can read my previous post for more details on this, but it was quite surreal as I was basically pitching my book (and myself) to a load of agents, while knowing that I was already ‘taken’ as it were, and that the extract I was reading out loud was no longer even in the book (it hadn’t survived my agent’s edit).

After the readings, the editor who had rejected me in favour of her colleague came up and introduced herself, which was surreal (I had no idea she was going to be there!). It was a crazy day, full of excitement and nerves – reading your work aloud to a lot of literary professionals is as terrifying as it sounds – and I remember looking down at my phone at one point to see a notification from Twitter that someone new had followed me.

I’m not sure what it was about her name, but I had a weird feeling she might be important. I looked, and she was the PR director for Quercus. I knew Quercus was one of the publishers reading my book and I thought somehow that might be significant – if the PR director knew about me, presumably the editor there had mentioned me to her? It was all so overwhelming!

I’m not sure when, either that day or the next, my agent emailed me to tell me that the Quercus editor was very keen and was sharing it with her colleagues. Meanwhile, we had a similar update from the other editor at the first house. I was really hoping by the end of that week I’d have a concrete offer, and was beginning to dare to dream that I really might end up with a book deal.

Alas, the next few days brought silence, but then on the Tuesday my agent told me the Quercus editor (lovely Cassie Browne) was taking the book to her acquisitions meeting. This is the Big Meeting where editors have to convince all the other departments (like sales and marketing) that they should buy the book. It was a good sign, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I remember my agent saying that we should hear the outcome of the meeting later that day, but there was nothing. Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep well that night.

Thankfully however, the next morning, my agent rang while I was walking home from the playground, my nearly-two-year-old in tow, to tell me that Cassie had made an offer – and that it was a pre-empt (which is an offer that expires within 24 hours and is a way of avoiding a book going to auction). It was a really exciting moment – one of those life-changing phone calls that you’ll never forget. I think my overwhelming emotion was relief – relief that I hadn’t been kidding myself all these years, that I was actually capable of writing something publishable. And not just something publishable but also something commercial, that readers would hopefully (touch wood!) want.

Later that day, I also had an offer from the other editor who was interested. It was like having my lottery numbers come up twice in a row. It was interesting to see how each editor had a different ‘vision’ for the way they would publish the book and after much deliberation (honestly, there was a huge amount of agony involved and backwards-and-forwards with my poor agent), I decided to accept Quercus’s offer.

Both editors who offered were amazing, and I would have been thrilled to have been published by either of them (that’s not lip service either) but for various reasons my heart was telling me Quercus were the right fit. Also, and this is stupid, I know (my agent would roll her eyes at me for admitting this swung me a bit, but it did), I have a picture in my dining room – a print I bought a while ago, and at the bottom it says Quercus & Co. I don’t think it bears any relation to Quercus the publisher but for some reason it felt auspicious, especially as I stare at it every day.

Anyway this post reads like a long not-so-humblebrag, I know. Don’t worry – I am still pinching myself. I know how lucky I was – especially to hear back so quickly. I was only on submission for just under two weeks in the end, which is really short and merciful. I do count my blessings, especially as I’ve known of friends who’ve been on submission for weeks.

However, before everyone reading this hates me and thinks I had it far too easy, I’d like to add that this is the third book I’ve had on submission with my agent, so trust me when I say I’ve been through the agony of being repeatedly rejected! Third time lucky – there’s definitely something in it!

You can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and pre-order here if you want to make my day.

Writing life

The Faber Academy Writing a Novel course

I have been meaning to write this post for AGES. I finished the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course back in March, and kept thinking that I must remember to write a little review of it on my blog, because when I was researching the course I didn’t find much online about what it was really like. From people who’d actually been through it and come out the other side. What happened to them all? Was it so scary that they never wrote another word? Were they all far too busy writing their bestsellers to have time to blog (hint: in many cases this IS the reason)? Was it just utterly rubbish?

So, for people in the same boat, here are the thoughts and ruminations of a survivor! (that’s a joke btw).

I applied for the course last August, after making a decision that I was going to give the whole ‘one day I’ll be a proper novelist’ dream a real shot. I was at the end of my maternity leave and didn’t have a job to go back to – a scary prospect and a story for another time. I had some regular freelance work to keep the wolf from the door, but I didn’t have a ‘plan’. And I’m a Capricorn, and I like a plan. So I made one: apply for Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, write novel during six months on course, get publishing deal. Live a life of fame and riches, etc etc.

So I applied, and then waited. And waited. And didn’t hear a peep. My plan was falling at the first hurdle! But, as a Capricorn, I had a Plan B. Plan B was to apply for the Writing a Novel daytime course AS WELL, which started at the same time as the evening one. I figured I’d doubled my chances, and hoped the tutors wouldn’t be confused and think I wanted to do both.

While waiting to hear whether or not I got a place, I did some pretty obsessive googling and found someone on a forum saying she had been offered a place already. My hopes dashed, I resorted to Plan C, stuck two fingers up at Faber, and puked out 5000 words of something completely new in one evening. Who needed a writing course to write a novel anyway?

But then the next day, when I was licking my wounds of rejection and feeling smug that I’d at least started something, I got an email. Saying I’d got a place on the evening course, and that Joanna Briscoe wanted me to be in her group. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement, as I’d always wanted to be in Joanna’s group. I read her haunting novel Sleep with Me years ago and knew she was exactly the kind of writer I wanted to learn from.

I was so nervous that first day, waiting outside in the rain for someone to open the Big Black Door. In truth, I don’t remember much about the first session at all, apart from that everyone was very polite and very nice, and the mix of backgrounds and experiences was brilliant. It was a really diverse group – I had thought it would all be journalists like me, but we had screenwriters and actors and architects, and a huge age range too. I remember we had to do a writing exercise to warm us all up, which definitely broke the ice, and I was so impressed with the people who volunteered to read theirs out to everyone (I still remember yours Tommy!).

I don’t think I spoke much for the first few weeks, but as we all got to know each other, I found my feet. I absolutely loved reading everyone else’s work – it was amazing seeing the variety of voices and stories, and I learnt so much from hearing other people’s critiques. It’s a fascinating process and really made me think. Joanna was a thoughtful and considerate tutor, never bossing us about but gently leading us, and pointing out things less experienced writers might not know or notice.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was really gutted when the first term came to an end. But – and this was the best bit – I had a first draft. An entire first draft, written in three months. Having that course to motivate me to keep going and ploughing on every day was crucial – Joanna asked us each week to set ourselves word counts, and then would check up the following week to see how we got on. The pressure was helpful, rather than scary, and everyone worked at their own pace, encouraging each other.

The second term flew by in a flash. Each term, we all had one ‘peer review’ session, where we submitted 5000 words of writing for the rest of the group to read and comment on. We’d then have a 45 minute group discussion once we’d all read the extracts. It’s as terrifying as it sounds, but also a necessary part of learning to write if you want to share your work one day with real readers! From time to time discussions got a little heated as with any creative endeavour, opinions are so subjective. But the lively discussions always got my brain going, and I found the feedback on my own work fascinating.

Our final class – sniff!

 

By the time the course came to an end, I think everyone was feeling a bit bereft. After having a baby and having a year off work, I’d loved having the structure of the weekly sessions (plus the long Saturday ones each month) and feeling like I had somewhere ‘grown up’ to go, to focus on my writing. Some of the passages we wrote in class for exercises actually made it into my completed novel, and they were easily some of the best. I also met some truly inspiring and interesting people, and count my 14 classmates as real friends. We continue to meet once a month, with several members of the group still sharing and reviewing each other’s work. A gang of us also went to the Hay Festival together in May, and I know I have writing friends for life.

Some of my Faber group in the Welsh countryside earlier this year

 

So my thoughts on the course… blimey, this is already over 1000 words, I’ll try to keep it speedy. I think it’s a really enjoyable and interesting experience. It’s a selective course, so everyone who gets a place has already shown they’ve got the potential to get published one day. But I don’t think it’ll get you published if you don’t put the work in. Like so many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. It’s not some kind of quick route to publication, or a way of bypassing the hard slog that comes with writing a novel. There’s a lot of hype around the agents’ reading day at the end of the course (when a group of literary agents come and listen to everyone read from their work). I do think this is a great way to get yourself ‘seen’ by agents, but if the work isn’t up to scratch, it won’t make a difference to whether or not you get taken on.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! In fact, once the course ended I started looking at other Faber courses, and wondered if I could justify the cost of the Editing Your Novel one. I also fully intend to do a poetry course there at some point in the future, as I’ve never really written much poetry and think it would be wonderful to learn about a completely different way of writing.

As you probably know it’s an expensive course. In some ways, I think this filters out the less committed. If you pay that money to get on, then you’re clearly going to take writing seriously. Which is great. But it’s a lot of money (although you do get a discount if you’ve already done a Faber course). Faber have announced that next year they’ll be offering two free places to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to do it, which is absolutely brilliant.

I’m happy to answer any questions about the course – just leave me a comment below. As far as I am aware, different tutors have different teaching styles, so I can’t guarantee your experience will be the same as mine, but the peer review element is the foundation of the whole thing, so happy to give any feedback on that.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, my plan worked! The novel I wrote on the course will be published next year, but that’s a whole other blog post…. (coming soon!).

BABY ON BOARD

Review: Tiddler Toddler Tracker

One of the best pieces of advice I (stupidly) ignored as a new mum was to keep track of your little one’s sleeping and feeding times, to help you establish a routine that didn’t result in them becoming overtired/hungry at night. I did it a bit, to begin with when Daph was tiny and seemingly drinking eighteen bottles of milk a day, but then as she got older I didn’t keep up with it. I had an app, which I never really got the hang of using (the breastfeeding ones in particular, with their built in timers, were just way too much faff for me!), and a paper chart the midwife gave me, but that soon got covered in milk/vomit.

So when I heard about the Tiddler Tracker (I saw a post about it from someone I follow on Facebook) I was pretty impressed, and really wished I’d had one in those early days, as it would have been much easier to keep on top of everything with a proper physical book. The Tiddler Tracker is a Moleskine-esq book filled with useful charts and pages for you to fill in, to track all aspects of your baby’s day. And it’s not just for babies, as there’s also the Tiddler Toddler Tracker for older kids, such as Daph, designed to be more relevant for them.

As a stationery fan, I just loved the idea straight away. I was also amazed that no one had thought of it before. I pinged off a tweet about them, and the company kindly got in touch and offered me a Toddler Tracker for review. Its arrival was very timely as we have recently been trying to keep a log of Daphne’s nap times to get on top of this early waking issue – it’s been SO helpful as we’ve realised that she actually needs to go to bed earlier than we thought if we want her to sleep in a bit later. It’s all to do with how long she’s awake for between waking up from her nap and going to bed for the night – any more than six hours, and she’s overtired and will wake in the night (and then, inevitably, wake for the day super early and grumpy).

There are several designs available to choose from, so you can find one that works for you, and the books are handily sized, so they’re not so small you’re squinting to read the pages, but they’d fit in your changing bag easily so you can take them out and about with you. Best of all the folk behind the company are parents and have really thought about the product, designing it based on personal experience of what works and what you need to keep a record of (they had a son with reflux, so understood the importance of tracking things carefully).

We’ve been using the Toddler Tracker for a week now, and we love it. Daphne’s also keen and enjoys watching us write things down in ‘her book’. I actually think the Tiddler Tracker would be a perfect present for new parents – something most people might not think of, but that would undoubtedly become an essential bit of kit for anyone coping with those crazy first months.