Sign of The Times 

‘Nice review in the Sunday Times,’ somebody tweets me. My boyfriend and I are watching The Sinner on Netflix. We’re going out to dinner in an hour and I can’t settle to anything. I am still, four months on from being part time, sometimes not quite sure what to do with free time.  

I angle the phone towards him. ‘Do you think this is true?’ I say. 

 

He reaches for it and reads. ‘Really?’ he says, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know.’ 

 

The Sunday Times. I can’t stop my mind from imagining it. Proper writers are reviewed in broadsheets. Lee Child, Zadie Smith. Imagine reading a review of yourself in The actual Times, I have thought before. What would your life look like if your work was reviewed in the newspaper? I couldn’t imagine it. 

 

‘Looks like it,’ my boyfriend says. He clicks on the link my Twitter follower has sent to me. There it is: recent thrillers. My name in the headline. 

 

‘I’m going to buy it,’ I say. Just ten minutes before, I had been wondering what to do with myself. And now – this. It is so strange, sometimes, to be a published author. All those people reading a review of my book in the papers in bed today and I had no idea. 

 

My boyfriend is used to these shenanigans and only sighs. ‘There’s money up there,’ he says, pointing to the bookcase. 

 

I don’t take anything except a handful of change to the shop; not even my phone. The ground is frosty underfoot and the night air is completely crisp. The walk to our local corner shop is short – less than five minutes – but I feel as though I’ll remember it forever. The silent night, the change jangling in my pocket. The bright lights of the corner shop up ahead. The smell of the print and papers as I let myself in. 

 

There’s a fat stack of copies left and I select one and carry it to the till, careful not to let the supplements fall out. I bought all of my press, back in March, when Everything But The Truth was reviewed. I have a drawerful at home; Glamour Magazine, Woman & Home, all kept pristine together in a tight bundle. But this is the first for my sophomore novel. The novel that says: here’s the next offering. After the debut. After my first. 

 

I carry the paper home close to my chest, like a baby, and let myself in to our warm house. ‘The woman on Twitter says it’s on page 38,’ I say to my boyfriend. I pass it to him and he spreads it out on the kitchen counter. This has always been how we have done things – bad news, good news, he always breaks it to me, and we default to it without thinking. I take my shoes off and stand, sock-footed, waiting, leaning against the fridge.

 

After a few minutes, he says. ‘It’s there. It’s good.’ 

 

He passes it to me and boils the kettle. I sit on the stairs and read The Sunday Times on a Sunday night that – somehow, miraculously – contains a review of the novel that I wrote. 

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Anything You Do Say (May Be Given In Evidence)

It seems impossible to go to bed. I couldn’t. It would be like missing the New Year; going to bed in 2017 and waking up in 2018. And so I have stayed up, even though I am alone, and even though it is not the New Year, only: my New Year. My book comes out in half an hour, the digital edition only. The paperback arrives in January.

I sat up late on March 8th, 2017, too. The weather was similar; a sort of blustery nothingness, sometimes much colder than expected, sometimes so close-feeling that sweat formed and I had to take my coat off while walking, try to hold its puffiness in my arms instead. I had no idea what to expect on March 9th. I had joked at the time to my boyfriend that I couldn’t see past that date. It had sounded dramatic, even to me, but now, I can kind of see why I thought that. Having a book published had been my ambition – no, not ambition; something more than that – a raison d’être? – since I had been old enough to know what an ambition was, and here it was, looming. But, with reality and not fantasy, there is often a reckoning. It had to sell. It had to be a success. Otherwise, it might end for me, right as it had begun, like a match that’s struck and inexplicably snuffs itself out.

I couldn’t have predicted all of the changes that have happened since March 9th, my last New Year. Small changes clustered next to large ones like diamonds amongst costume jewellery, and I am still sometimes unable to tell the difference. It became a bestseller, and so I became a bestseller; a label that is forever attached to me, on my novels, said about me at parties, and in jest when I am being pathetic about not wanting to put the bins out. The things I used to think were important: the verified Twitter tick, the approval of strangers, the acclaim. The things I now think are important are still there, like planets slowly circling a sun I have been too busy looking at: that my family love me, that my boyfriend wants to spend his life with me. The friends who text me on this night, twenty minutes before my book is published, saying: how are you feeling? And the writing, always the writing; my life’s heartbeat, strong and consistent. Promoting book one. Editing book two. Writing book three. Book two’s publication plans. Delivering book three. Starting book four. Putting book four aside to edit book three. Oh look: a message from a reader in Hungary who loved my debut. Like having a busy family of four children whose names I sometimes mix up. Picking up book four again. First draft, second draft, third draft. Plot crisis. Character crisis. Slowly slowly slowly solving the puzzle and falling in love, year on year. A different sort of New Year, but the same, too.

I couldn’t, either, have predicted the less flashy changes. The effect of the changes, maybe. Realising as I wrote late at night in April in a train station, gloves on my hands as I typed, that I needed to go part time. Waking up on a Monday recently, after I delivered my third book, with no novel to write and nothing to do and wandering downstairs and running a hand along my empty kitchen counter. The constant, demonic fear of my last book being the best thing I will ever write. The worry that a book will be uniformly hated. That not a single person will buy it.

As I write tonight, at now fifteen minutes to midnight, I don’t feel many of the things I felt on the 8th March. The reviews will be as they are for every other book in the universe – some stellar, some irate, some constructive, and wincingly insightful too – and the sales will be what they will be.

It’s ten to twelve, now. I’m sitting in my office. A hot chocolate and a candle on my desk. And – here, and now – there are no reviews, no sales to consider.

It’s midnight as I type my name into Amazon. I see the box at the top flick from pre-order to buy now. But it’s not that that catches my attention, that films my eyes with tears. No. It’s simply my name. My book. Everything else falls away. Here I am, a published author – building a canon, no less – able to type my own name into Amazon.co.uk, and find something there.

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Writer’s Life

I worked all weekend. I use work interchangeably, now. For law and for writing. They are both work, in different ways. And in some ways, much the same.

I didn’t put my hair up with a pen – you know, like an artist might – or wear dungarees and take breaks for yoga. The reality of a weekend spent editing two short stories, one after the other – each of them ten thousand words – was not that. My hair was unwashed, held up by an old bobble with a curl of torn-out hair around it. Glasses on, no contact lenses. I had too much tea, too much coffee, too much Coke. I stopped for meals and, on the Saturday, to meet my father to give him my Kindle so that he could beta-read my short stories for me. I enjoyed that drive in the rain to the services at Junction 6 of the M42. I listened to rap music and let my mind wander.

I forgot to light a candle, the way a proper author might. I didn’t look at the framed poems I have hung on my wall – If by Rudyard Kipling, The Orange by Wendy Cope – and I didn’t look at the strange paraphernalia that surrounds me in my office – endless copies of my own book in different languages, a Penguin Classics mug with my book on, bookmarks and postcards and newspapers with my own reviews in. This stuff fades away as I write. Not because it’s not important, but because – it is sad, but true – I am only as good as the last thing I have written. Everything But The Truth must fall away as I tune in to something new.

The characters followed me around all weekend. Into the shower, late on Saturday night – I had to get out to write something down, my fingers wet on my iPhone, making the autocorrect go mad – and into bed with me. I got up in the night and wrote on the back of a receipt – try to evoke that feeling of meeting new people all the time and feeling like you’re really living life. That didn’t make it into the story, but, like the invisible first base coat on a wall, it didn’t need to, in the end.

I’m trying not to obsess about the obsessing. This is the way it is for me, the way it has always been, when I write, and the way it will likely always be. There are no carafes of water, no thoughtful, long, hot baths. There is only my one-beam focus, my blinkered gaze. I sweat under dressing gowns and change into Harry Potter t-shirts while still trying to type. I eat rubbish and do no housework. I feel in love with the characters, can’t break their eye contact.

I sent the short stories off today at lunchtime. They had taken me an age – several weeks longer than I wanted them to. I was frightened of them – their length, their form, the pressure of a new story, right in the middle of when I was writing a Big Book, and felt creatively tired – like trying to have a dream within a dream. I avoided them, faffed with them, moaned to people about how I couldn’t get them right, even though I had chosen to do them. And then, this weekend, I basically re-wrote them, in my Harry Potter t-shirt, with unwashed hair.

This is what it is like, in case you were wondering.

Part time life

There was never a moment when I wanted to write. No quiet, still moment while reading a book when I realised I could do that. I never really considered it; I just did it. Always have.

***

I am eight years old, and writing, on Notepad, a book about a woman who gets a new job. It is called A New Life and I have just discovered that there is a clip art which exactly matches the description of the woman in my book. It must be fate.

I never finish that book. My favourite part of it is the thrill of the blank page, the cursor flashing on and off, on and off. I open the document, and look at it, and think of all the things I can write.

***

Where Magic is Possible follows A New LifeI am thirteen. I start Three By The Sea when I am sixteen. What A-levels should I do if I am going to do an English degree? English, of course… but what else?

‘Are you going to do an English degree?’ my dad says in surprise. And me and Mum are like: obviously.

‘Oh, yeah,’ I say. It isn’t a decision. Of course I am going to read the greats. I want to know what has come before this writing; who wrote the first novel? The first bildungsroman? It is obvious, this choice, for me, like the feeling of wanting to get to know your parents, your grandparents, to want to explore the town in which you live.

‘Well,’ Dad says. ‘Great.’

***

I take a creative writing module at university, obviously, when I am nineteen. It is run by a woman called Candy. I am still writing Three By The Sea, but I shelve it to write a short story about a woman who kills herself. At the end of the term, my piece gets read out to the whole class while I feel something both squirming with embarrassment and opening up inside me: I should write my novel. I haven’t written any more of it, but have started a blog, this blog, and am writing most days; vignettes of my university life. I develop a rather strange habit of getting home and hanging my wet-to-the-knee jeans on the radiator and writing in my room in pyjamas bottoms, every afternoon.

I am never writing anything I am supposed to be.

***

‘I have an internship with Glamour magazine over the summer,’ a fellow English undergraduate says to me when I am twenty.

Oh yes. I should be doing that. Journalism, or something. Shouldn’t I? I want to be a novelist.

I would look into those internships.

***

I don’t look into the internships. At the end of university, on results night, I go to the Gun Barrels pub in Birmingham. I am off to do law, the following autumn.

‘You still got that blog?’ An indie boy asks me. He is clutching a vodka and coke, the glass curled into his chest.

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘I like writing. As a hobby. I mean yeah – I want to write novels. On the side.’

But who would do that for their actual living? How would they do that? It seems like aspiring to win the lottery or to front a pop band. Yeah, I want to write novels. ‘Like everyone,’ I add.

***

It is the 1st June, 2017 and I am sitting with my iPhone in my hand, in my bed, even though that is contraband because it stops me reading fiction.

I’m not really thinking anything at all as I scroll mindlessly through twitter.

‘Alright for you,’ my boyfriend says, glancing at me. It’s late, and he should be sleeping, because he has work tomorrow.

I do not have work tomorrow, because it is my first part-time week. A lawyer (a whole other vocation I could write a post about) for three days a week and an author for the rest. My boyfriend falls asleep and it’s just me and the cat in the quiet of the night.

Here I am, thirty-two years old, and tomorrow, I will become a novelist. Being paid to write. That thing I always wanted to do, but never felt I could.

Here it is.

My Second Novel

It was the most difficult book I had ever written.

Gone Girl meets Sliding Doors in this edge-of-your-seat thriller

Joanna is an avoider. So far she has spent her adult life hiding bank statements and changing career aspirations weekly.

But then one night Joanna hears footsteps on the way home. Is she being followed? She is sure it’s him; the man from the bar who wouldn’t leave her alone. Hearing the steps speed up Joanna turns andpushes with all of her might, sending her pursuer tumbling down the steps and lying motionless on the floor. 

Now Joanna has to do the thing she hates most – make a decision. Fight or flight? Truth or lie? Right or wrong?

It is a Sliding Doors-style novel. In ‘reveal’, Joanna confesses and goes to trial for one of the worst crimes. In ‘conceal’, she leaves the scene, covers up what she has done and tries to live a normal life.

I had the idea in November last year, while walking from my living room bin to my bathroom bin, carrying a swinging sack of rubbish with me. I remember the moment exactly. The idea arrived unannounced, as they sometimes do, like a presence in my living room, insistently clearing its throat, about to speak. I dropped the bin bag and sat on the arm of the sofa for a few minutes. A stray can of Coke rolled out, leaving a small brown trickle near my feet, but I didn’t notice, not until later.

And then, like all writers, I thought: well, damn. That’ll be difficult. An exchanged glance with myself. Thanks for that, I thought. A great idea and a nightmare, all at once.

I started writing it in the January. The first chapter had formed itself. The crime is a feminist look at the fear women live in. Spontaneous enough so that it could happen to every woman. Scary enough to relate to.

It would be simple, I thought, like I think at the beginning of all first drafts. One chapter after another.

It’s just that … there was two of everybody. Two Joannas, but also her husband, times two, affected differently in each version. And on and on it rippled out. Two brothers. Two sets of parents. Double the character development. Like trying to herd cats. I would write entire chapters based on a piece of information which was only known to the narrator in one version, and not the other, and have to delete it. I tried to hold it all in my mind, but it was too difficult, and so I made my very first timeline, instead. Even my trusted father, my muse, was confused. ‘This seems like quite a big thing for your first novel written under contract,’ he said once into his cup of tea. ‘Too late now,’ I said, but inside, I was thinking: I will write you, Big Idea, and I will be a better writer for it.

The day after I had finished my first draft I noticed, in the lift at work, a few strands of grey hair at my temples. Well, fine, I thought. I was thirty-one, anyway.

I did three more drafts. The first a re-write. One strand came more easily than the other, eventually proving like a rising bread dough. The favoured sibling, looking disparagingly across at the other strand, the other Joanna. The other Joanna, the runt, shrugged helplessly up at me.

That version wouldn’t rise, wouldn’t work, and then became overworked and turgid. It needed thinking time, and space, and tender kneading, but it got there, too. That was the second re-write.

The third draft was a character edit; in amongst the cat-herding, my distinctive characters had become flat, moving mechanically across the pages, their idiosyncrasies lost in the dough. They needed baking, hardening, so I could see their edges.

I made some wall hangings, mind maps of character traits and how they acted in relationships. I took walks with them, every Saturday in the fields with the long grass near me while my boyfriend played cricket. I asked them about their childhoods, their belief systems, and, by the August, they had started answering back.

The prose edit, in the autumn, was a welcome relief. Like carefully scraping the bread from the inside of the loaf tin. It was fat and formed, just needed tidying up. There, I thought, as I turned it out and looked at it. There.

By the end of October, more than half of my hair had turned grey. I shook my head ruefully as I stared at it in the mirror. I delivered my book on 30 November and the next day telephoned my hairdresser. You can’t see the grey, these days, but it’s there: my second novel’s legacy.

Anything You Do Say is now edited. It is somewhere in Penguin’s systems, after edits but before a copy-edit, before page proofs when it starts to look like a book, and before proofs go out to authors and press.

It is still mine, really. My little loaf of bread that took all of my reserves, and quite a lot of my vanity, to bake.

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First draft Vs final: a comparison

Everything But The Truth is a Top Ten Bestseller

We walk through the door of a candlelit café. It is my perfect venue; relaxed food and the ability to order a milkshake, and not alcohol, at ten o’clock at night if you wish.

I ask for buttermilk chicken because I can’t resist it if it appears on the menu, and I get Dave a massive glass of red wine.

When I sit back down, he drops his usual jovial expression and says: ‘did you have any idea this was going to happen?’

‘No. No,’ I say.

‘What did you think would happen?’ His blue eyes look navy in the dimness.

I think for a moment. My pot of tea arrives and I fiddle with the hot lid, letting little curls of steam out of the top. ‘I actually didn’t think about it,’ I say, astonished at myself, for I think too much about everything. ‘I couldn’t see past publication day.’

‘Yeah,’ Dave says, nodding. ‘Me too, I suppose.’

We sit in the quiet for a moment, ostensibly out celebrating, eating buttermilk chicken and whatever pudding we like on a Tuesday night, but actually just sitting quietly in shock. Everything But The Truth, my little book, hit number 6 in the Sunday Times Bestseller list today. Nobody was more surprised than us. Than me.

Dave sips his wine silently, still looking at me. I like that look. That quiet look; he lets me sit with the knowledge, the undoubted success, which I will not – definitely not – discard next week in the quest for the next thing (staying in the top ten? Number one? A BAFTA?). It joins us at the table, the achievement, and Dave lets it sit with us for a moment in the quiet. I am eight and writing in the opticians. I am thirteen and reading Sweet Valley High in my bedroom into the night. I am fifteen and keeping a journal so fat and full of artefacts that its pages won’t close. I am twenty-two and starting my second novel for adults. I am twenty-five and blogging every day, reams and reams of dialogue between Dave and I. I am twenty-eight and reading Louise Doughty and wishing, wishing that I could be like that. I am twenty-nine and standing at the train station, staring at my phone in shock with the email inside it that says an agent has signed me. I am twenty-nine and rejected by all the major publishers, my novel discarded in a folder deep on my hard drive. I am thirty-one and getting the call to say that Penguin bought the novel I wrote in those slow-moving pessimistic months that followed rejection. And here I am, thirty-two and my book has sold the sixth most of any paperback in the UK. Top Ten Bestseller will forever emblazon my books.

Our food arrives after a few moments and the achievement leaves, and now it is just the two of us again.17553496_10101734963782705_9098392581946252335_n.jpg

Scenes from a published author’s life

I open my eyes and it is the first thing I think: I went to sleep unpublished, and now I am published. Here, in this bed.

The sun outside is the same. The ticking of the clock in the hallway whose batteries have run out is the same; its ticks are dull and stilted, but still there. The way the cat seems to know I am awake and arrives noisily in the bedroom as soon as I open my eyes.

But now I am published.

I slept badly, knew it must be after midnight by the time I slept, but I ignored it. It was still today so long as it was dark. Tomorrow was for the morning.

And now it is tomorrow, and I am published.

I get up and pull my dressing gown around me. It was almost fifty pounds, bought from M&S the winter my first novel was rejected by publishers. I bought it to write in, and to comfort myself, and because handing my debit card over temporarily always seems to make me feel much better, and here I am now in the grey dressing gown with the white hood, an author published by Penguin, standing alone in her bedroom in the first of the spring sun.

***

We have a geeky itinerary, my boyfriend, my dad and I. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to go to every single location that was stocking my book. They did not roll their eyes or exchange looks, as they often do. They nodded back, seriously, and then we made a nerdy list.

I’m tired and feeling strangely feverish in the car – symptoms I will later see are clearly anxiety – and, on the way to my dad’s, we pass a Tesco, and I cannot – just cannot – resist. ‘My books are in there,’ I say, and my boyfriend indicates left and pulls in, no further words spoken.

We head to the news-stand and – oh! There it is. Not a surprise, or a defining life moment, or a shock, to see my book with its own poster and the Sun Book Club promotion, but actually more a quiet moment of recognition, like seeing a very old friend across a room. ‘I made you, and look at you now, out here in the wild,’ I think, and, unable to resist, I reach over and pat one, just on its shoulder. ‘I hope you do well,’ I say. My boyfriend looks at me like I am mad.

***

My father tells the woman in Asda that the book he is buying is mine. She doesn’t believe us, and he shows her his debit card, and my book. The surnames match, and she cries.

***

People on Instagram are using the #EverythingButTheTruth hashtag. A group of people who all get the bus to Hinkley are all reading it together and discussing it on the bus. Somebody bought it in Tesco to take on an aeroplane with them. Someone’s taken a photograph of their favourite quote in the book and filtered it. These things, they did not exist before I created them, and here they are, out in the world, a tiny speck of a legacy. Even if it is on bloody Instagram.

***

The sales email arrives. I have had cold hands all lunchtime, wondering when it will come. My eyes look for the numbers before the words, because I am like this.

There they are.

I look.

Then look again.

Then close the email, and immediately re-open it. After three days of sales, I – and Everything But The Truth, together – have become Sunday Times Bestsellers. We debuted at number 17. I close the email and go and find the Bookseller chart, then open it again. The chart position matches what it says in the email. It cannot be true. I cannot be this lucky. This fortunate.

I tell my boyfriend, who is (flatteringly) not at all surprised. He buys me peanut butter cups and a red wine I’ve recently enjoyed.

‘Weird, isn’t it?’ I say.

‘Very,’ he says back. ‘But kind of cool.’