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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 22.06.53

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.’

 

Get an agent, they say

“The first step is to get an agent,” the Writers & Artists Handbook said. The blog posts said it, too. Everybody who wants to be a writer knows you should get an agent.

Get literary agent I wrote on a piece of paper. It was my 2014 New Year’s resolution.

I wondered what literary agents might be like. Perhaps they would be like Estelle from Friends. They’d wear outlandish clothes and chain smoke cigarettes and say, “Gillian, I can make you a superstar.”

My literary agent, when I first met her at Bill’s in Hammersmith, was only slightly older than me. She wore a striped jumper and a cool necklace and I wanted to ask her where her eyeliner was from (I did, subsequently; it is the Lancome Art Liner and it is perfection).

Her emails were always professional (All best, Clare) and her edits were incisive (this just doesn’t work). She had a way of knowing and telling me what was best for me before I even knew it myself (I’ll tell you when there’s news – distract yourself).

Things changed after time. Things changed after a deal was done, both because we both knew I was sellable, but also because of the heads-together nature of it. Those emails, those calls, where we discussed my future writing career, what I’m doing next, how long I need to do it.

“What of this piece in the Bookseller?” I would say, and she would always respond with her view. We have played maybe two hundred games of Words With Friends, and once, when we were on submission, I wrote the word “W A I T” and thought I seemed very smart.

We Whatsapp, these days, in these established days of our relationship. I send her gifs of me drumming my fingers, sometimes. I screenshot my reviews. She sends me photos of her daughter. She tells me to relax more.

Get an agent, the guidebooks said. They were right, of course. But I didn’t know it could be this way. A hand to hold, a counsellor, an advisor, a friend.

It is 36 hours until my novel comes out

“Do you have anything you’d like to add?” my friend Gemma says to me. The interview is at a close. My book is almost launched, three days before its release, and I’m sitting on a high stool, holding a microphone, staring out at almost everybody I’ve ever met.

I say some thank yous that feel like poor facsimiles of the deeds my family, friends and publishing professionals have done for me. I cut short the thank you to Dave because my throat closes up. And then the microphone is being taken away – did somebody take it away, or did I hand it over? How strange and distorted the spotlight turns your mind – and people are parting so I can walk, first, to the signing table, and now the formal part of my book’s launch is over.

As I walk past I see there is a stack of my books right next to the till, all looking satisfying identical. I wonder if I could tell them apart, my books in the wild, but I think I have to stop trying, stop trying to read every review, to keep track of it all. One of the books on the pile is dog-eared, but otherwise they are all just the same. Replicas.

I walk through the cookery section, holding my Sharpie. I never thought I would be ready for this moment. It was racing towards me and every day, I was thinking: I am not ready for this. Not ready for a launch at which I would be the centre of attention, not ready for people I speak to every day to be reading my fiction, not ready for the sales, the sales, the sales figures.

How can I get ready? The days have rushed past and I have pondered this while having iPhone dinners and showers during which I accept Oscars and imagine my Amazon rank to be 1,000,000 (very bad). Another day done. Another night done, I think, as soon as I wake. Two weeks to go. One week to go. Just days. Only a handful of days remain.

I have plans the weekend after my book is out that I have paid almost zero attention to. I know they exist. I know they will happen, but for now, for me, the curve of the earth is steep, a sheer drop, and they are on the other side of it – only a step away, but a big one.

As I walk across the bookshop, my feet echoing on Waterstone’s wooden floors, I see a couple of people at the back of the audience have started to move. They approach the till. A friend reaches to pick one of my books up, lingering over the cover, her index finger out, tracing my name – my name! – and then she hands it to the bookseller, and pays by contactless card – a tiny beep – and the bookseller places it in her hands. I have stopped, stock still, next to the photography section. I am still looking, watching this transaction in awe. She is £7.99 worse off, and she now owns my book. A tiny piece of me.

I hurry to the chair where I will be signing books, but I keep seeing that book sale in my mind. The first I’ve witnessed. And it might be that the launch is over, my Everything But The Truth cake cut, that I am surrounded by a safety net of family and friends, but I don’t think so. No. It is seeing that sale.

You see, the books have replicated exponentially, and I have tried, and failed, to keep track of them all, like a father whose children have had children have had children have had children, and suddenly there are thousands of them and I cannot tell who is who. They are not mine anymore; they are distant relatives, descendants of me. But they are not me. And they are not mine.

That sale. It has done it. That contactless beep. The book is, in its thousands, out in the world in 36 hours’ time, and here I am: finally ready.

It is not 19 days until my novel comes out

9781405928267_EverythingButtheTruth_COV.JPGMy book comes out in under three weeks, just over two, and time has become very strange and distorted indeed. I suppose it is because, no matter what stage I am at – looking at the beautiful page proofs, holding the first ever edition, reading my own reviews – I cannot quite believe this is happening. I have quite animated imaginary conversations with my past self, while I am in the shower and driving alone in my car. “You have a book deal with Penguin,” I tell 2008 me, bed bound and languishing and sick and not working but blogging every single day, voraciously, and neither of us can truly comprehend it.

My publication day is no longer on the horizon. It is almost upon me, like the globe has turned too quickly, suddenly. It has gone from oh, next year to March to next month and now it is so close I feel I can almost reach my fingers towards it and grasp it, only I am stuck on February the 18th and it is out on March the 9th and I cannot quite reach it, no matter how hard I try. And so I wait here, on February the 18th, looking at March the 9th, just over there, just a few sleeps away, but I cannot quite reach it, nor the things it will bring.

“How are you feeling? Are you excited?” acquaintances say to me. Am I excited? I think incredulously. No. Because it cannot possibly be happening. Not to me. Small me, who always wanted this, for her whole entire life. In my next shower, I tell my twelve year-old self about the Penguin book deal. She has just finished a book called Where Magic Is Possible, and she can’t believe it either.

“So next Monday we’re going to Liverpool,” my boyfriend said last night to me. We were walking from a restaurant called Stable to our car, parked fifteen minutes away in the Jewellery Quarter. The lights of the Town Hall were so bright they flared up into the sky like moonbeams.

“Yes.”

“And then after that…”

“Stop right there,” I said.

“God, it’s two weeks away.”

“It’s not,” I said, trying to ignore it.

His hand was warm around me and he didn’t say anything more, though I suspect he would like to talk about what we’re actually doing that week. But I can’t. It has emerged from the distant future and into the now and – here it is. I am near to term, 38 weeks’ gestation, and waiting. I am a woman who is scrubbing her skirting boards without knowing why.

I could say my fear is because of the sales figures, or the hoards of strangers reading my book, or the people I know who will be reading it, and reading themselves into it, but I don’t think it is any of that. It is because I am – in just over two weeks – about to be thrust into something else. Into Other. From unpublished to published, and everything that comes with it. Those others things – they remain unknown to me. I am getting glimpses of them – reading about myself in Hello Magazine, for example – but they are becoming more obvious, like the glinting beginning of the sunrise, just over there.

It is Saturday the 18th of February and this morning I tidied my entire house, like I am nesting, and soon I will write two thousand words of my third book, and tonight I will go to sleep and I will be another day closer to it all happening. The windows are open for the first time in six months and it is slightly warmer, but that cannot be true because my book is a spring release, and it cannot almost be spring – it cannot, it cannot – because that would mean I am about to achieve my actual dream, and that cannot be happening. Not to me. No.

Books I loved hard in 2016

I must begin this list with the usual disclaimer: I read and loved many books in 2016, and these are just some of them. Some I have tweeted and instagramed about already, so this is just a selection of books I loved very ardently in 2016 who haven’t yet been touted about much on the internet by me.

51iUUrXIVML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly – out 20 April

I finished this very recently, in December, but have still found myself thinking about it often in the few weeks since I finished it. It is about a newly in love couple who witnesses what they believe to be a rape during the eclipse in Cornwall in 1999 (which I was actually at, with my Mum; I remember the disappointing cloud cover, too). They testify as witnesses at the rape trial and the book follows what happened following that event then, and now, and why the protagonist of the book, Laura, has become so anxious. It is at once atmospheric, moody and fast-paced. I have thought of the characters often since I finished it. The legal stuff, in particular, is very plausible.

The Mistake I Made – Paula Daly 

515VHUNUgnL.jpg

I had never read a Paula Daly until the autumn of this year, and now I can’t quite understand why, as I wait for her Fourth novel, The Trophy Child, imminently due. She treads my favoured line that runs between thrillers and women’s fiction: ostensibly, this is a psychological suspense novel about a woman who sleeps with a man to clear her debts and remove the threat of the bailiffs from her door, and all that follows, but really it is about her failed relationship, a new relationship, and her sense of self as both a woman and mother. It was perfection.

51A0hlEAOZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Well – Catherine Chanter

Of all the books I read this year, I think about The Well the most often. Part dystopian novel, it’s about a couple who own the only remaining source of water in the UK, a well on their land. Really, though, it is straight women’s fiction, about a relationship under scrutiny, about the divide between public and private lives, and about what people will do when they’re desperate.

My Husband’s Son – Deborah O’Connor  51Kl-LABO0L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I don’t think I have raved about a book more than I have this one. I must have sold tens of copies of the people who I insisted must read it. Its premise is simple: two people in a relationship met because their children went missing; Heidi’s child was found dead, but Jason’s is still out there. What if you thought your husband’s son was living nearby, but you weren’t sure? I loved the premise, but more than that, I loved the gorgeous prose and the intelligent treatment of the plot: it is recognised that it is not as simple as getting the child tested, and the subject matter is treated sensitively and realistically. And that ending – Wow.

61-pAaLV+3L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena

If there were a prize for the best set-up I’ve ever read in a thriller, this would win it. A boozy dinner party. A couple who leave their child – just next door, and check the baby monitor every half an hour. They arrive home, and the baby is gone. That set up, those first pages, are literary perfection; a masterclass in how to reach out, grab a reader, and not let them go. I devoured it in just a few days.

Miss You – Kate Eberlen 

41xAOb55iPL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was lucky enough to read this book in Florence itself, where much of it is set. It is a high concept love story, about a woman and a man who are perfect for each other, but whose paths simply won’t cross. Having written a book that is similar to this in structure (my second baby to be born in 2018 is a Sliding Doors-style split narrative), the biggest challenge is making sure both stories stand strong on their own. Eberlen excels at this. Miss You almost reads like two bildungsromans, one for Tess, one for Gus, until they entwine beautifully, and unexpectedly, at the end. Sigh.

Gone Without A Trace – Mary Torjussen

51lyaC0IhmL-3.jpgThis debut hooked me good and proper. A woman comes home from work to discover her boyfriend, all his belongings, and his internet presence have disappeared. What I loved most about it was that it moved almost in real time and it was utterly plausible. The heroine, Hannah, was completely gobsmacked, as we all would be, a heartbroken, too. There was a real gripping depth to this.

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner

61e6-0rninl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Hoo, boy. Do I have one hell of a book hangover currently. I wasn’t expecting to like Missing, Presumed. It takes a lot for me to truly love a police procedural (my tastes sit too far in women’s fiction) but love it I did. Completely. Utterly. Smitten. I (like Erin Kelly, quoted on the jacket), too, did not want it to end. Not one little bit. It is a gripping thriller (and it is truly gripping) with a plot that rattles along at pace, but what I truly loved about it were the characters. There are no maverick alcoholic cops here. Just two women – real women, one of whom wants a relationship more than most anything – who get on with each other and want to solve a crime. There is such a richness of character to this, and a lightness to the prose; I laughed many times. I also highlighted so many passages, I scratched my kindle with my nail.