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.
First draft Vs final: a comparison