Monday, 3 December 2018

The Apprentice – You're Fired

This Saturday I was on the Meet the Authors stand at Penshurst Christmas Market doing my first ever face to face sale of Unspeakable Things. I wasn’t speaking, blogging or posting – I was sitting with a pile of paperbacks to sell to the public.

My ex-boss always says that publishing is about creating books that people want to buy. And as a self-published author, you can’t just be a wafty creative type – you have to sell.

I started with an inferiority complex. The lovely author I took over from, Deborah, had spread out an array of published titles. She has an agent who moved to America and found her deals there. She wrote her most recent bestseller 'as a joke' and then ‘found that it was taken seriously.’

‘Better than the other way round,’ I quipped through a tightening smile.

Perhaps recognising a rabbit in the headlights, she asked all about my book and bought a copy before she left. Bless her – my nerves settled. At least I’d be able to say I had sold one.

My fellow stallholder was also friendly and frighteningly successful – he had written two bestsellers about Churchill. For the first fifteen minutes of my two-hour slot, I watched him sell three copies while Unspeakable Things lay unnoticed.

And why wouldn’t people see his books, think of someone they knew who was interested in Churchill, and snap up a copy for Christmas? He was relaxed and confident, able to chat about a popular subject with a mix of authority and gossipy titbits.

I was beginning to feel like the candidate on The Apprentice who can’t sell anything and gets fired.

I had watched Deborah enthusing about her book, its glowing reviews, the publisher wanting a second, the delights of the setting. I needed to shake off my feeling of failure, up my game and wax lyrical about Unspeakable Things.

Unfortunately I couldn’t remember a single thing about it. I read the cover as last-minute revision. Something about motherhood and madness.

‘It’s for someone who likes a dark, creepy thriller,’ I began to say to people who showed an interest.

Now there is a divide between people who can’t resist this kind of thing and those who avoid it like the plague, and you can’t tell just from looking at them. A few festive market-goers shuddered as if I’d said it was a story about hurting kittens. Perhaps they all had mad mothers. Or were mad mothers themselves?

After one couple bought a Churchill book, the husband looked at mine with benevolence and said to his wife, ‘What about this one for so-and-so?’ I didn’t hear her disdainful reply.

‘That’s not very nice, is it?’ he said to me.

My smile was becoming frozen. You see this happening to Lord Sugar’s young hopefuls, and from the comfort of your armchair, it is very entertaining.

After a passer-by stalked away from my offer of dark, creepy thrills, I got the hang of spotting those who were genuinely interested and throwing out a comment to entice them. I sold another copy and restrained myself from throwing my grateful arms round the buyer.

The hall remained busy and money was clearly no object. I had decided beforehand to reduce my usual price of £7.99 to a special offer of £5. Now I saw that people had brought enough cash to do some serious Christmas shopping while supporting local traders.

I began to suspect that my novel was the cheapest thing at the market.

A stallholder opposite explained why she had stopped selling a particular item. ‘They took hours to make and I could only sell them for a fiver.’

Unspeakable Things took me twenty-three years to write. I was literally underselling it.

In the end I found my readership and found myself selling and signing copies. My smile was now genuine as I remembered that many people have enjoyed the novel, and it is actually worth buying. I left with an envelope full of fivers and some really valuable lessons.

To begin with there were shades of I’m a Writer – Get Me Out of Here. Selling in a market is not my natural environment. But if you publish your writing, your books are your product, and if you can’t sell your own product, you shouldn’t be publishing.

So I wasn’t the candidate who couldn’t sell anything, but Alan Sugar would not have approved that I had sold at a knock-down price in one of the South-East’s wealthiest villages.

Thank you to the organisers of Penshurst Christmas Market! You were kind, welcoming and willing to stretch the boundaries of your village to include me as a local author. I had a lovely afternoon there in the end.

But on The Apprentice, I would still have been fired.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Me and Kate Atkinson

This summer I plucked up the courage to take a few copies of Unspeakable Things into a local bookseller. I mean an actual one – not a coffee shop or a secondhand bookshop.

I had been warned the manager was dubious about self-published books, but I breezed in with fake confidence and assured her I would advertise it through my vast social media following. To my delight, she agreed to try it out for three months (thank you Fiona at Sevenoaks Bookshop!)

While there, I bought a ticket for a talk the bookshop had organized by author Kate Atkinson.

I love Kate Atkinson. I loved her duo of wartime-set novels, Life after Life and A God in Ruins so fervently that I made my Dad read them too, implying that I wasn’t really interested in talking to him until he had done so.

When I turned up for the talk three months later, I felt like a tiny, unworthy fish in a huge pond dominated by the brilliant likes of Kate Atkinson.

To make things worse, I popped into the bookshop beforehand to discover that no copies of Unspeakable Things had sold. Fiona was busy with the real author’s talk so I told the salesgirl I would pick up my unsuccessful efforts later.

As the crowd gathered, I got chatting to a fellow admirer of Kate Atkinson and commented that you could assess who her readers are by looking round at the audience – for instance, most of us were women.

‘I hadn’t noticed that,’ she said. ‘What made you pick up on it?’

Now, this blog was my first big step out of the closet as a writer. Since Unspeakable Things came out in January, I am happier to declare myself.

So I replied that I am interested in such things because I am a writer, though of course, not a proper one like Kate Atkinson. She kindly she asked about my book and I told her a bit about it. I always have some postcard-sized ads with me for just such occasions, so I silenced the ‘don’t show off’ voice in my head and gave her one.

Most of us had bought a copy of Kate Atkinson’s new novel Transcription in the lobby, but this woman had decided to buy it later at Sevenoaks Bookshop and to choose two more novels to take on holiday.

And guess what? She promised to buy Unspeakable Things. It would have been lovely to chat to her anyway, but now my three-month trial had been saved at the eleventh hour by this encounter at the feet of Kate Atkinson.

The proper author came on, and her talk was great and Transcription looks excellent. I still felt utterly unworthy, but as she spoke I felt a tingle of recognition that said, yes, I get it. I am a writer too. 

When it came time for questions, a woman asked, ‘Your novels seem to flow so creatively, as though they just grow organically. Do you do any planning at all?’

Of course she does, I thought. She’ll plan meticulously. Writers don’t commit to a shopping list without working out how it will end.

Kate Atkinson smiled. ‘I’m delighted you think that my novels just flow organically,’ she said. ‘But the truth is, I plan everything meticulously.’

And it turns out we have something else in common. The plot for Transcription came to her when she was doing research for her other wartime novels and came across the story of a real spy from the era.

My new novel The Year of the Ghost is partly set in the war years. While researching the history of child evacuees, I came across some extraordinary facts and stories. Perhaps the effect of wartime propaganda, which encouraged people to see Operation Pied Piper in a positive light has lingered on, meaning that its darker side has not been much explored.

Courtesy of Defense Media Network

One of these stories, of evacuation with loving hosts, followed by the discovery of a shocking family secret, inspired a major plot line of The Year of the Ghost.

I’m not a million-selling author or a multiple prize-winner on a prestigious book tour. But I am a writer. I plan meticulously. I find inspiration from research. And apparently I promote my book wherever I go!

So yeah – me and Kate Atkinson. We do that.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Are your kids off to uni? 7 top tips to help you survive and thrive

Courtesy of MoneySpace

(Based on my article that appeared in Juno Magazine)

‘You’ll be sad when Sam leaves,’ everyone warned me four years ago when my younger child’s departure for university loomed.

‘I know. But we’ll be fine,’ I said.

I had a good marriage and a fulfilling job. Sam was hardly there anyway, with his busy social life and travel bug. I would miss him, but I was not going to be one of those women who moon over their lost babies.

My first son, Ben had left two years before. I was determinedly bright and positive then: I knew he was going to be happy. I pitied the tear-stained mothers I saw on campus, but me? I was fine. Then across a crowded hall, I saw a Dad cuddling his daughter. At the sight of his loving gesture, a dam broke, releasing tears I hadn’t known were there.

We spent a couple of hours settling Ben in – peering at other newcomers, wondering if they’d be his friends, and trawling round Asda, pointing out the cheap ranges and the urgent need for broccoli.

When we got up to leave him, he stood in the corner of his room, looking anxious. ‘Are you going?’ he said.

‘We have to,’ I told him. ‘Your new life won’t start until we’ve gone.’

The next day a text arrived. After we left, he had met his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it. They had all been up until three.

At home, we adjusted to putting three plates out instead of four (I made the same amount of food – we just ate it). We missed Ben, but he was studying film – his passion since the age of ten. I couldn’t feel negative about him pursuing his dreams.

After a decent interval, we spent a happy weekend visiting him, enjoying a new, more adult relationship. A routine set in of absence, then lovely visits.

The start of Sam’s first term brought another nervous drive, another Asda shop, another moment of parting. I was ready for the tears this time. On the way home, I retreated deep inside myself as I had after Ben’s birth, adjusting to the shock of motherhood. Now the whole adjustment process was thrown into reverse. Both my babies were gone.

‘You must miss him terribly,’ people said. We did, but we had busy lives, and work, and each other. Eighteen-year-olds, I pointed out, are not all that easy to live with. They crash around at three in the morning and eat all the cheese. The house was quieter now, and tidier. We chattered brightly over the silence.

Having vowed to let Sam find his feet before visiting, we decided to make a date to go and see Ben.  But Ben had a hotel job now. He wasn’t sure when we would be free to see us.

Our coping fa├žade disintegrated. We knew that we loved those weekend visits. We hadn’t realised they were keeping us going.

The house felt deserted – our own company an open wound. I could hardly bear to watch those Gogglebox families sitting down together to watch TV.

If we talked about it, parents with teens at their side joked, ‘Ooh, can we lend you ours?’

‘They come bouncing back,’ others said with a weary air. We stood chest high in a misery that no one understood.  

That’s when the dreams began. I would drop a boy off at university and drive home. In his bedroom, I would find him, a baby still, standing in his cot, arms reaching out for me. If everything was all right, no one had told my unconscious mind.

I wrote this tragic little ditty to express it all:

Boys, you are men,
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university,
You are standing up in your cot,
Still needing me.

For all my denial, I was grieving. I began to accept this instead of fighting it. If tears came on my walk to work, I let them. When memories took hold of me, I allowed them to run their course. That end of the kitchen table was where Ben used to sit when he could still fit under that cupboard. That’s where Sam sat in his highchair, shaking his drink over his head.

I began to fret over what my function was, at work and at home. I had lost a role that had filled my life. We had been a family together for twenty years. Now what was I for?

If this is you, I offer you my heartfelt sympathy, and these few things the experience taught me.

7 tips for coping when they fly the nest

1) Acknowledge the impact when your youngster leaves. It’s all right to be anxious. It’s all right to be sad. You are not just missing your adolescent, but the baby, infant and child they were. You are also missing the parent you were and your place you had in their life. Give yourself time and permission to grieve.

2) Try not to dump your emotion on the departing child. They have the right to spread their wings with barely a look back. This doesn’t mean pretending you don’t miss them. But don’t expect them to fix you – that’s not their job.

3) Schedule in a visits straight away – it will be a beacon to aim for. Once you have seen your offspring again, you will feel so much better. Settle into a new routine in which you see them at intervals. Negotiate those intervals – they’ll be missing you too, but give them space!

4) Be kind to yourself. Book in some treats and new experiences. Behave as though you are relishing your newfound freedom. Eventually your heart will adjust and this might actually be true.

5) Take stock. What was important to you before you had a family? What is important now? Years of catering for others might have prevented you from wondering. This time of flux can help kick-start positive change.

6) Your child’s new life, full of opportunity and excitement, can make you wistful. What if you could start again? When you come out of the cocoon you formed with your family, the world will still be out there. Explore it – you might thrive!

7) Relish those moments when they need you again. The phone call about toothache, or their bike being nicked. Of course they still need you – they always will! Try not to sound pleased, though. Just sympathetic, understanding and confident that they’ll cope.

As for you, you will survive, and I hope you will thrive!

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Stop procrastinating now – or soon

Soonish, anyway. At least put it on your To Do list.

Writers are world-class at putting off writing. I can’t focus on it unless every scrap of freelance work is done. And the house is clean, and I’ve made chutney.

Lately I have had a partner in procrastination – my just-graduated son. We returned home from a family holiday. I had a pile of urgent work to do, so writing was out of the question. He had an online TEFL course to finish by producing a lesson plan and an essay.

I met my work deadlines, so for a very rare moment, all I needed to do was write. I had just been on the annual holiday that inspired my new novel The Year of the Ghost. What better time to press on?

And yet I put it off. I made a very good show of being busy – there was the holiday washing to do, windfall apples to preserve, decorating to get started.

My son was more transparent. He’d stay in bed until midday, then say he was keen to get going. ‘Me too,’ I’d say, ‘I’m going to get down to some writing.’ He would potter around until mid-afternoon, by which time he’d be starving. Shopping for food, preparing and devouring it would take up another few hours. He was lucky if he got started by the evening, and then not much progress was made.

It was so sloppily obvious, his student-style procrastination. And yet I wasn’t writing either.

What was stopping us? The Year of the Ghost is at an exciting point – the plot and sub-plots hurtling towards a crisis, long-kept secrets about to burst into the open.

My son’s life, too, is at a tipping point. Once he gets the TEFL qualification, he is going to get a job so he can finish saving up to go and teach in Vietnam. It has been his dream for ages, and it’s finally about to happen.

Was it precisely because our prospects are so profoundly wished for and worked for, that we were  putting off achieving them? Is it scary to reach out at last for what you’ve longed for, like leaving the ground and flying?

I gave up my career to finish my first novel, Unspeakable Things, then battled with the worst procrastination I’ve ever been mired in. I’d wanted to publish a novel my entire life, but I let terrifying self-doubt paralyse me.

I got through it in the end. Unspeakable Things burst upon the literary scene, only twenty-three years in the making. And I had watched my son agonise over the bete noir of his dissertation, but eventually he had ground it out (and got a First for it).

Now we were both slouching round the house putting off the inevitable. I knew it had to stop when I took to the bathroom with a tube of hair remover. ‘Apparently I can’t write with hairy legs!’ I called. We both knew the game was up.

I opened up my document of changes to be made to The Year of the Ghost and went through the novel applying them. I have almost finished rewriting a whole character, among other important improvements. Goodness knows, eventually I'll actually go on with the story. 

As he sat down at his laptop, my son grunted and groaned as though literally pushing through a barrier. Soon, though, there was no distracting him. He wanted feedback from his father when the two of us were in evening mode, nodding off in front of the TV. He battled on, got the work done, submitted it in the middle of the night and found out within hours that he had passed the course. He’s doing an intensive peer-teaching course this weekend to improve his chances of employment. In other words, he’s flying.

Try these 8 strategies to break through procrastination:

1 Work out what you really want to achieve. It could be as profound as ‘end career, finish novel’ or as basic as ‘write thank you letters’ or ‘clean out the cupboards’. 

2 Divide it into smaller, achievable tasks.

3 If you find yourself procrastinating, think through what’s really stopping you from reaching your goal. Once you catch yourself putting obstacles in your own way, it’s easier to push past them.

4 Commit yourself to spending 25 minutes on a task, then plan a break. You’re afraid getting down to it will be horrible. It probably won't be, and even if it is, we can put up with horrible for only 25 minutes, right?

5 Think past the task which is daunting you to the way you’ll feel when it is done.

6 Cut yourself off from distractions – facebook, Instagram, Reddit – you know who you are!!

7 Leave off the task at a good point – don’t leave yourself with a difficulty to solve when you restart. If it’s an essay, stop for a break when you have a clear idea of what you’re going to write next.

8 Plan a reward for when you’ve finished. This stuff is HARD – you deserve it! 

Some people are genetically inclined to procrastinate, and if you suffer from OCD or any kind of attention deficit disorder, it can be a particular problem. Give yourself huge credit when you push through it to achieve your goals. You are a legend!

In a sense, we’re always putting something off. When I’m working, I feel I should be writing. If I have time for writing, I worry I don’t have enough work. When I finally got down to working on the second novel, I felt guilty for putting off marketing the first. I should be writing this blog, booking talks, going round the bookshops to see how Unspeakable Things is doing.

Let’s give ourselves a break! Let's do one thing at a time and do it well. There will always be other things competing for our attention. We have to be at peace with putting them aside.

The hairy legs, the marketing, the other stuff can wait.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Why would she do that? Motivation in The Handmaid's Tale

I am addicted to Channel 4’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

If you can get beyond the harrowing first episode of Season 2, the rewards are rich. The new series is as thought-provoking as Margaret Atwood’s novel.

Margaret Atwood made a rule when inventing Gilead: she wouldn’t show anything that hasn’t happened somewhere in real life.

Now I understand why the series resonates so powerfully: it echoes authoritarian regimes all over the world, from the slave plantations of the Deep South to Nazi death camps to Islamic State. These echoes are the reason we believe in Gilead. This dystopic vision makes us look at our world: what political realities do we face today that we wouldn’t have believed five years ago?

The writers have done an excellent job of moving beyond the novel’s plot, melding details that were in the book but not in first series with the backstories of Offred, the Waterfords and Moira.

The plot is gripping, with Offred always in jeopardy. Personal and political relationships change in fascinating ways from one episode to another. The storyline makes us ponder profound issues in the real world. Is terrorism ever justified? How do the oppressed suffer when power is destabilised? What does work mean to women?

But something has niggled this writer and editor! Because at times character motivation has been sacrificed for the sake of the clever plot and themes.

I was delighted to discover that Offred was an editor – now I can relate to her even more! And I loved the scene when Serena Joy and Offred work together, writing things for the injured Commander Waterford so that he can protect his power from his hospital bed. Handmaids are not allowed to read and write, but Offred is empowered when she is given a pen. The two women glimpse an alternative life in which they might have been colleagues. We feel how much they both miss their lost working lives.

It is riveting and powerful.

But what about motivation?

Serena Joy has to protect her husband’s position and her household, and she will bend the rules to do it. I get that.

But why would she commit a crime by involving Offred?

We see Offred handing back a draft, suggesting swapping the order of two paragraphs. But Serena Joy has been instrumental in the movement that has swept to power in Gilead. She has been a powerful speaker and the brains behind some of their policies. Why would she risk everything to secure Offred’s editing services?

Look, I’m an editor – editing is vital! Don’t even think of publishing anything without it! But with the enforcers of a reign of terror running amok in the streets, would you commit a crime with the handmaid carrying your baby, just to have her reorder your paragraphs?!

I remain addicted to The Handmaid’s Tale, but I couldn’t let this go.

Do you struggle when a fictional character does something that leaves you thinking, ‘But why would you do that?’

Friday, 29 June 2018

Chilling on the Beach - Why We Relax with Scary Books

The only problem you face when reading on the beach is that holding the book can make your arm ache. It’s a deliciously stress-free situation – you’ve saved up for it all year! So why choose to enhance it by lapping up fictional stress from the pages of a novel?

Life is hectic and full of challenges – surely the last thing we need is more anxiety? Many people want cheering or soothing reads with just enough drama to keep them interested.

But some of us are wired up differently. We love to spice up our relaxation with a dose of spine-chilling excitement. We need to see characters we care about in terrible jeopardy. We want our hearts thumping, pulses racing, minds tormented with dreadful dilemmas – ideally while getting a tan.

I have always loved books that create strong emotions. I don’t want to be mildly amused, slightly concerned or a tad sad. A good read has me crying with laughter, gripped with tension or wracked with sobs. I made the mistake of reading Birdsong during a bus journey, and had to stop when I became so upset that other passengers were looking.

When it came to writing Unspeakable Things, I thought about what scared me most. Madness, came the answer – and the fear and treatment of madness. And so the gothic setting of an old asylum was born, and the Gatehouse nearby where Sarah moves in, newly pregnant and desperate to learn about the mother she lost when she was four. Her only hope of learning her family history is Uncle John, who runs the Woodlands Clinic. But what he says about her mother terrifies Sarah. As her usually strong grip on friendships, marriage and reality is threatened, can she trust what he’s telling her – or is the truth stranger and darker still?

I love hearing from people who have read the novel. Many have said they couldn’t put it down, read deep into the night, put the children in front of a DVD and wouldn’t rest until they finished it.

We are a particular tribe, we lovers of fictional thrills. We don’t need bungee jumping – we take our adrenaline rush on a sun-lounger, when there’s nothing else to worry about.

Why not grab Unspeakable Things for a beach read and enjoy a chiller while you’re chilling? If you’re local to me, you can get it in Halls Bookshop in Chapel Place or The Cake Shed on the Pantiles, in the Earl Grey Tea Rooms in Southborough, Mr Books in Tonbridge or Sevenoaks Bookshop.

For everyone else, there’s Amazon! The Kindle version cost pennies!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Success - a step-by-step guide

Courtesy of Harper's Bazaar

A roomful of losers

Successful people are the ones on the red carpets, right? They are attending premieres or being nominated for glittering prizes. We see them dressed in designer clothes they haven’t paid for, looking more glamorous and more successful than we will ever be.

A while ago I heard from someone who came on stage late in an Academy Awards ceremony to announce one of the final Oscars. ‘At this point in the evening,’ he said, ‘you’re looking out at a room that is mainly full of losers.’

Wait – losers? Those were our successful people! Is success so elusive that you can epitomise it one minute, and the next it slips away to celebrate at a party to which you’re not invited?

Courtesy of IndieWire

Are you a success?

Your answer will depend on the field in which you operate, and on your dreams and aspirations.

Writers are dreamers: we all dream of success. When we’re struggling, everyone says not to despair, because J K Rowling had her work rejected to start with and now she’s on all the rich lists and is still writing great fiction.

At the London Book Fair last week, Millwood Hargrave’s book Vardo ‘was the subject of a battle between 13 publishers.’ It eventually went to Picador for a ‘significant six-figure sum’ (The Guardian).

Are Rowlings and Hargrave the writers I should be emulating? If so, I am falling short. For me, the rejection didn’t stop – it continued. I ended up self-publishing, just to get Unspeakable Things off my desk and into people’s hands (or Kindles).

Wherever you are in life, there will be someone who is doing better than you. Someone in your industry or workplace or classroom, or at the school gate who is your idea of success. You admire them, but with a nasty envious afterburn. They put you in the shade and that’s a dark, cold place. They might be a real person or a celebrity. They have made it and you haven’t. You’ll have to work harder, or all your efforts will end in failure.

We need to rethink our concept of success

When Unspeakable Things came out, I was filled with relief. I had wanted to write all my life – and my lack of success was eating away at me, as if my life’s purpose had derailed and was going nowhere. Now I had succeeded – or had I?

Once your book is out, everyone asks how it is selling. For a while, my sales ticked up in ones and twos. I would get excited about a spike in my KDP sales graphs, until I realised the scale: oh, that was only two books. When people asked, I fudged the issue – with ease, because I didn’t often look at the reports.

One day it hit me: I was in danger of not enjoying my publishing experience for what it was, because I was worrying about what it wasn’t. No, I was not selling millions. Or thousands. But I was into triple figures! And it seemed that everyone I knew was reading the book, and many were saying they couldn’t put it down. Five-star reviews were coming in and I was going to book groups and talking about Unspeakable Things with people who had entered the world I had created. Articles came out in the local press and friends and family were excited for me.

Couldn't give it away...

Over Easter I scheduled a 5-day Kindle free offer on Amazon. I didn’t look at the sales reports for days, fearing I was about to find out that I literally ‘couldn’t give it away’. When I looked, I saw a spike in the graph – it looked big – perhaps a dozen books? But no – it was 761! Soon sales soared to over a thousand.

Now, this may not be your idea of success – I make no royalties from the free purchases. But do you know, I feel much better for it. Having adjusted my attitude to enjoy the success I had achieved, instead of grieving for heights not scaled, I allowed myself to be very happy.

There's always someone even better

If you struggle with a sense of failure, could you stop and celebrate your achievements? There’s always more we could aspire to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the only success that will satisfy us is something very few people achieve, we are on a hiding to nothing.

If any achievement is followed by the sense that real success is what that even better person has, we are doomed to think we’re failures. And then we will miss out on all the joy we could be feeling about what we have actually done.

The happiest person at the Oscars

So here’s my step-by-step guide to success. The first step is to work out what you want to achieve in life and focus on it. The next is work and more work and setbacks and learning and never giving up.  

But the most important step is to realise this: the success you dream of is probably an impossible dream. Not because you’re not good enough, but because even if you won all the prizes you want to win, you probably wouldn’t feel the way you want to feel.

Those who have the success you aspire to probably have another dream they’ll never achieve. If those people at the Oscars ceremony felt that way, then they really were a roomful of losers. The happiest person in that sparkling room was someone who was happy with their actual achievements. It is as likely to have been one of the waiters as one of the film stars. It bet it was.

Courtesy of Bon Vivant

Am I a success?

Most writers are not J K Rowling. Most make nothing much, or even lose money. After I changed my view of success, a startling realisation hit me. I have wanted to be a writer since I was five. Now I am a writer. I have published a novel and over a thousand people are potentially reading it. I make much of my freelance money from writing. I am really enjoying writing my next novel, The Year of the Ghost. I’m editing more and more fiction and loving working with other writers.

I could put ‘writer’ on my passport, and it would be true.

No one is battling to give me a six-figure deal. My sales are cheering, but not financially so. I won’t be appearing on any red carpets or peering down any paparazzi lenses.

But I am what I have always wanted to be. And I choose to call that success.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Being True to Toddler You

Slimy pants!

I was looking after my favourite three-year-old this week. We made Slime – the blend of PVA glue, bicarb and contact lens solution that miraculously forms a blob of viscous, squeezable joy. Flobbery, bouncy and endlessly stretchy, it is surely the best stress-buster since Valium.

Charlie threw the Slime into the washing basket. ‘Ughh!’ I said. ‘Slimy socks!’

This led inevitably to more ‘accidental’ throws and to slimy pyjamas, slimy pants, slimy knickers, a slimy bra… Soon, Charlie was laughing so hard that he could hardly breathe.

Teddy Bunkles watching TV

Now Charlie is nearly four, his sense of humour and mine are very much on a level. He delights in word-play and nonsense rhymes, slapstick, cheekiness and the world’s funniest thing: farting. All jokes I have never grown out of.

If you are bringing up a toddler (or can borrow one, like me), you will know that at three a child’s personality shines out. Three-year-olds have got over the two-year-old’s struggle for self-assertion and world domination. They are beginning to know – and to show – what makes them tick.

My son, Ben, aged 3

My Mum has photographs of her three grandchildren at the age of three, and I can see why she preserves them at this golden age: though baby-cute and still malleable, they are already fully-formed versions of themselves.

In later life, we lose sight of this. I recently found myself a married, church-going, middle-class woman with two children, a mortgage and a very settled career. Life yawned ahead of me, a well-worn path through child-rearing to moderate career advancement to pension.

Was this the real me, living this life – contemplating this future?

No. As a toddler, I was a thrill-seeker. I’d be coming down the biggest slide in the play park while mum was still explaining that I was too small for it. I loved puddles, getting dirty and going for walks in storms. I would go exploring on the beach and bring tar back to the picnic rug. I made funny faces if people peered into my pushchair.

I was fiercely determined: I wanted to skip like my older sister before I had even mastered jumping. I stayed out in the garden with the skipping rope until I was red-faced and exhausted.

I had a vivid imagination and wild dreams I still recall. I made up gods and loved stories.

At fifty, in mid-life torpor, toddler Sophie re-emerged. I left my full-time employment to write, freelance and volunteer, and finally achieved my life-long ambition, publishing my psychological thriller Unspeakable Things this year. I am loving writing my second novel.

Photograph by Craig Matthews

Do you feel like a stranger in the life that has formed around you? Does time trudge by, weighed down by things you must do, but don’t care about? Are there too few moments in the flow of deep, fulfilling enjoyment, when the real you is out there, doing what he or she does best?

If you’re dancing to someone else’s tune, the music you could be making is silenced.

What did you dream of as a child? What excited you? You might have fallen into a life that doesn’t reveal that little person. It seems safe, particularly in later years, to stick with the status quo. But oh, the sad toddler inside, stifled, unexpressed – the real essential you that you were created to be.

Courtesy of JustMommies

I have reconnected with my imagination, my need for new challenges, my love of adventure, learning and discovery. The red-faced determination of three-year-old Sophie got me through the anxiety of starting a freelance career and the stress of self-publishing.

I’m at peace now with toddler me. And I love my mornings with Charlie.

Friday, 9 March 2018

What do people really think of your work? Meeting the critics face to face

Disaster and a consolation

Feedback about my psychological thriller novel Unspeakable Things has been wonderful. This was a great consolation after the disaster of my blog tour – Facebook blocked me for spamming.  I was in fact sharing unique content in groups with which I had built up relationships over months and years, but try explaining that to a broken algorithm! 

Feeling that I had failed to reach out to a readership I don’t know personally, it has been lovely to receive the encouragement of people I do know, and to share their excitement and kindness.

I just need to know more people…

Into the reader's den

I was delighted to get my first invitation to speak to a book group.

All did not go entirely to plan. I waited in the wrong place (they had moved to a different bar) and when I found them and went to buy a drink, I found that I had lost my purse. A lovely group member bought me a drink, but as I launched into my talk about how I came to write the novel, I was picturing thieves running amok with my bank account. I may well have been talking rubbish.

They were a great group – lively, interesting, intelligent and all really focused on discussing the novel (which has not always been my experience of book groups).

It was fascinating and enlightening hearing their thoughts. They had plenty of positive things to say – many had been gripped and read avidly to the end. 

One young man, usually a reader of Fantasy, said it was out of his comfort zone, but he really enjoyed it, particularly the character of David. His interest and insights into the character were very encouraging. As usual when receiving compliments, I tried desperately to erase them from memory to avoid embarrassment, but I did treasure up these gems of approval.

There were of course things they weren’t sure about – moments they felt stretched credibility or left them confused. Once one person is brave enough to bring up such points, others tend to wade in too. When something comes entirely from your own head, it is a revelation to hear how it reads to others. They all thought, for instance, that the injection John attacked Sarah with was the reason for her collapse. I had left this open, intending the reader  to fear this, but later realise it was her high blood pressure that led to the crisis.

Some questioned why Sarah would stay in the house after what happened there. I explained that she wanted to restore the past, making new memories over the terrible ones. But as with a joke, if you have to explain it…

What really struck me was how often the points brought up were ones already raised by my literary consultant, which I thought I had dealt with.

Top tip for expert feedback

When you have professional feedback, the advice is to leave the rewrite for a time, and ponder on it fully. Writers are all very excited at this stage, thinking, ‘If I just fix these things, it’s finished – I can publish it!’ The risk is that we rush in with quick fixes, following each suggestion. Perhaps it is better to wait for a solution to come from our own imagination. This might mean a fuller rewrite, but you will avoid the same issues being raised in future. In other words, don't do as I do, do as I say...

Dealing with  (ouch!) criticism

We all know that writers need rhino hide – if your work is published, it’s out there for the world to judge. But I’m not really a rhinoceros, and let’s be honest, any criticism of your creative baby is like a stab in your self-esteem.

Nevetheless, I was determined to keep a cool head, and learn from this. I made sure I discussed all the issues rather than becoming defensive, and the result was an open and interesting talk, with a lot of warmth and laughter.

The vexed issue of Codeine Linctus

The trick with criticism is to separate the useful from the … less useful. One woman, having heard that I am an editor, took issue with my capitalisation of Codeine Linctus. Having aired this grievance, she had other matters to get off her chest. But we are never going to please everyone.

It was a privilege meeting this book group. I am hugely grateful to every one of them for buying the book and reading it. Their feedback was invaluable, and so was the drink that they bought me when I was flapping.

I found my purse later in the car. And as for Codeine Linctus, look – I’m still giving it capitals!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Inspiring mothers: are you buried in motherhood?

Let’s face it, we get buried in motherhood. Little people’s needs and our instinctive responses are overwhelming. For a season, we lose ourselves. Baby cries, we leak milk. Child wails, we make it better. 

And if anyone thinks these responses are an over-reaction – think again. The human race would die out without them.

The weight of responsibility – not to mention the drudgery – can be crushing for a woman.

Of all the mothers in my novel, Unspeakable Things, Deb is the buried one. Previously a high-flying nurse, she now has a toddler who won’t go to Daddy. We meet her trying to throw together a dinner party for her best friend, Sarah.

Now that her days were filled with the mind-numbing chatter of the nursery run, it lifted her spirits to be with people who had known her before.

When Sarah gazes at her jumble of family memorabilia, Deb calls it her ‘dusty old mess.’

‘It’s not a mess. It’s lovely. Like a museum of you.’
‘Museum’s about right. I think I’m becoming extinct…’

Is there a you inside that rarely sees the light of day? Is some essential spark of who you are being snuffed out by the burden of being Mum?

Do you blame yourself for losing it but also feel guilty because you yearn for it?

This weekend I went to a party and met a young mother. She was singing in a wonderful band and her talent just shone. You could tell that she was both gifted and well trained, and I wasn’t surprised to hear she had been to drama school. She was fitting in singing with bringing up children of three and six.

Preparation for a gig, she told me, involved vintage costume and make-up, and took hours. But how do you explain to small children that mummy is unavailable? ‘And then there’s the marketing,’ she said. ‘I know I should be doing more – there’s Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and everything, and I just can’t seem to get round to it…’

I had a powerful sense that she felt she was failing, and yet what I’d seen onstage was someone radiant and inspiring.

We hear that Serena Williams is struggling with the demands of motherhood. Serena is a world-beater, brought up to give her all and reign supreme. The woman won the Australian Open when she was four months pregnant! And yet four months into motherhood, she has withdrawn from the tournament. Why?

Because Serena does not enter a tournament unless she knows she can win it.

Mothers, don’t be so hard on yourselves! You’re finding it hard because it IS hard. But it won’t always be like this.

You will resurface, and when you do, take stock. Is there a part of you that’s buried? A dream? A talent? An idea for a business? Something that connects you with the you inside, who has curled up and gone quiet in the noise of family life?

Do something for that essential you, the one from before. It might be an hour spent crafting or writing. It might be jotting down plans. It could be teaching or studying, or just talking about politics. Whatever you achieve is a victory.

If you have the drive of a world-beater like Serena, you might need to give yourself time. Being realistic does not mean letting go of your dreams.

Sometimes being a mother reconnects you with your childhood, and who knows what yearnings you’ll find there? Perhaps not the same ones that launched your career. Motherhood can prompt you to reinvent yourself.

And if you do unleash that inner you and take to the stage, don’t tell yourself you’re second-best! You’re a wonder, an inspiration, like the singer who lit up that venue last night.

You won’t be ‘having it all’ in this season of your life, you’ll be muddling through. But in years to come, as the impact of motherhood eases, your time will come.

I hope you flourish.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Feel the Fear and Self-Publish Anyway

I have just self-published my first novel, Unspeakable Things. It's a psychological suspense mystery about motherhood and madness – thank you for asking. 

Now I am like a hermit with a megaphone – I have to shout about it – all the self-marketing check-lists say so – but with every shout/post/tweet I want to apologise for being so noisy and go back to hiding in my cave.

Everything about self-publishing means breaking out of your comfort zone and doing something frightening.

Show someone

First you have to show your writing to someone. In my day job, I’m a book editor. I recently received the first chapter and synopsis of an 800-page novel. The writer has also written an 800-page sequel, but had never before dared to show the works to anyone. Imagine having that dedication to writing, but being afraid to reveal it to the world – and I think you’ve had a glimpse into the mind of most writers.

Showing you work makes you deeply vulnerable, like tearing out a lump of your soul and letting someone judge it. They might crush your dreams. Your outpourings might be unworthy of the world’s attention.

Being an aspiring writer is like being an out-of-work actor or a bathroom singer: you have an urge to express yourself, but no one is listening. What if you’re the hapless singer in those early auditions for the X Factor – talentless and deluded?

But if you don’t show anyone your writing, you’ll write your way into a dead end. You’re so familiar with your work that you can’t see it as a reader  – you have no idea what’s good or bad about it.

I remember my fear and trembling as I sat waiting to meet my literary consultant, Lorna Fergusson. Everything I cared about might be shot down in flames.

But afterwards, I knew I’d done the right thing. I had a project with real potential. I had a clear way forward and hope again.

Show someone professional

Friends and family are too kind or too hurtful. Editors and literary consultants are encouraging, honest, unbiased and clear.

Lorna showed me what was working and what I needed to change. This, and my relentless re-editing in the light of her comments helped me make Unspeakable Things good enough to publish.

The beast at the gate

The next hurdle was my phobia of online forms. They fill me with self-loathing, because I shouldn’t be frightened – but every glitch, time-out or error message panics me so much that I can’t remember a sensible thing.

Even paper forms do this to me if they relate to finance, and don’t even say ‘tax’ to me – it’s a horrible swearword.

Yet I was going to self-publish through Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing. I had to upload my files and fill in my details on two huge online forms which are notoriously difficult to conquer.

I had wanted to publish a novel since I was five years old. Now my lifelong dream was like a beautiful garden guarded by a monster.

When two fears fight

I put it off and put it off. The files weren’t ready. It wasn’t the right time of year. I’d do it when someone was there to help me. In the end, my fear of never getting published was as powerful as my fear of the forms. I was riven by anxiety. I had to do something.

And so one day I just did it. I sat down and tackled Createspace. It took a couple of hours, a lot of research, a foray into forums about US tax exemption and a lot of keeping calm under pressure. But I did it.

You know why they say ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’? Because that’s how we overcome phobias. After Createspace, I felt invincible. I had learned that mistakes and glitches are not the end of the world, and once you’ve worked through a few error messages, you get skilled at overcoming them. Panic subsides, your brain restarts, and everything is easier with it working.

I was barely even anxious about Kindle Direct Publishing. It took a while and there were glitches, but I got through it, and at the end there was a button that said, ‘PUBLISH’.

Reader, I published it.

I suspect that most things worth achieving are guarded by monsters of our own making. We are brilliant at finding reasons to stay within our comfort zones. But with every beast we slay, we grow and thrive.

Do you have a lifelong dream you haven’t achieved yet? Are you afraid you’ll never make it, but also afraid to try? I’ve been there and would love to hear from you!