Beginning at The Beginning

As an avid reader and incurably nosy person myself, I’m aware that when you read a book (if it’s good) you often want to know all about the author, the person whose mind this stuff has come from. What do they look like? Do they look like the kind of person to have had these thoughts, to have created these characters? Are they old or young? Well-dressed or more bag-lady? And most importantly do they seem intelligent? Creative? Worth reading more of? Clearly they don’t set this out for you, it has to be gleaned from the drops of information that they do feed you. But usually, upon looking for more information, you get a sparse account of their lives which runs something like this: “So-and-So was born in Leeds and attended Manchester University, graduating in Something Which Has Nothing To Do With Writing Whatsoever. So-and-So now lives in Hull with their partner and small child. XYZ is their first book.”


There’s something missing there – what about the bit in the middle? The all-important decision to become a writer/novelist/author, whatever term you want to use. What about the idea for the book, where did the characters names come from? How long did it take to write? Did they write during the day or in the dead of night? How did the rest of their lives fit in? And then when it was finished, how did they get it published? Because goodness knows, it’s far from easy for those of us who were not born into a distinguished writing dynasty or happen to have an old boyfriend who now edits The Times or some such publication. For me, I want to know warts and all. Although not literally. So I’m going to write about the whole lot. Me, my world and my writing in its entirety will be chronicled from this point onwards. And if I had warts I’d write about those as well.

So let’s go back to that first moment when I decided that I wanted to become a novelist (the bit before that is what can be found in my author bio, plus going to school in Henley and then Reading and having one brother and one sister which then spiralled rapidly to one sister, one brother, two step-brothers and one half-sister and one half-brother when my parents divorced and attempted to out-do each other with children).  I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to be a novelist but I do recall that it was a definite decision which came almost immediately after my graduation (Law) as real life loomed and there was a distinct danger that I might have to do something constructive and purposeful. This always comes as a shock to students.

I don’t know quite what reception I envisaged for my announcement, but I can’t say that anyone I knew was thrilled. My parents looked a bit pale as they stared back at the last twenty years and an expensive education; the words ‘in vain’ were definitely floating around their minds if not actually being voiced. They hadn’t been too happy when I announced that I was having my first daughter, Molly, in what should have been my second year at University. But we’d got over that by the time I graduated. This event had undoubtedly lulled them into a false sense of security whereby they felt that I was actually on the road to employment. I don’t think they saw the bend in the road. Neither had my husband who looked aghast at the idea of years of supporting our expanding household alone whilst I filled my time writing a few stories (except I don’t think I presented it like that. The words ‘famous’ and ‘novelist’ and ‘millions of pounds’ definitely featured in my persuasive account of why I should be allowed to stay at home in front of my laptop.)

Like most writers who are just beginning, my first attempts at ‘novels’, as I optimistically called them, were atrocious. Badly-constructed with badly-defined characters with a plot that ground to a halt after 25,000 words. But this is part of the process. I was sending my work out to agents along the way and surprisingly I received some very positive replies. No-one was prepared to actually take me on, but it and they were encouraging so I persevered.

Then in March 2007, my second daughter was born and unbeknown to us at the time she had a genetic abnormality. Myself and my husband were plunged into a strange, nightmare world of tests and investigations and prolonged hospital stays as doctors attempted to find out exactly what was wrong and how badly she would be affected. Alice was diagnosed with something called 22q11 deletion, or Di George Syndrome. She spent much of her first year of life in hospital, either undergoing tests or being treated as an in-patient for whatever infection had arisen. Her health appeared to be going from bad to worse as each professional identified a new problem area. As a desperate attempt at escapism, I sat down one night in Alice’s bleak hospital room on the oncology ward and planned what turned into Things He Never Knew in a few hours. Start to finish. And from that very bare plan I crafted the book in whatever snatched moments I could. Life was busy and I made slow but steady progress. Then I put it on my desk where it lay, untouched, for about a year.

In April 2009 myself, my husband and Alice attended the Max Appeal conference in London. Max Appeal is the charity which supports sufferers of 22q11 deletion. During the conference we heard India Knight (@indiaknight) speak, and listening to her inspired me to dig out the manuscript and give it a heavy re-editing. That done, I chose three chapters that I thought were a fair reflection of my writing ability and sent it to a publisher. Having been knee-deep in rejections for the last four years I didn’t think much would come of it and frankly expected to have it back almost by return of post. But a few weeks later I received a letter asking to view the full manuscript. This was a good sign, but I wasn’t jumping with excitement yet, I’d been here before. Almost this exact spot in fact. So I posted the manuscript as requested, again not expecting much, but about a month later a letter arrived saying that the publishers liked it very much and wanted to publish. Drum rolls, champagne corks, vuvuzelas, etc., etc.? Not quite. Because although the offer to publish was a much sought-after, hard fought for offer, this is not the end of the battle to be a novelist. I’ll rephrase that. It’s not the end of the battle to be a successful, well-respected novelist, not by a long shot. So where we are now is just the end of the beginning, although I have to admit that I’m pretty pleased to be there.

Next time: working out how many times it was viable to reject the drawings for the front covers that the publishers were sending me; I use the term ‘drawings’ loosely. And how I eventually ended up with the cover that I did. Also it’s full steam ahead for the promotion side of things, as I realise that I am approximately six months behind where I should be. These days it de rigeur to start promoting yourself before the actual book is written. Plus assorted revelry as the summer holidays kick off…..

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