One day a few years ago my three-year-old came to me crying, having discovered a tear under her toy bunny’s arm. I suggested we phone Granny (the only person in our extended family who could actually sew), but Charlotte fixed me with urgent wide eyes and told me that we would need Invisible Fred.
A creeping sensation went through me. Who was this Invisible Fred?
I suddenly recalled my own slightly alarming imaginary friends, Ux and Timothy, who appeared at the dinner table one day when I was four years old. Sadly lacking in any moral code, they threw vegetables on the floor at mealtimes and scribbled in my Ladybird books. After a year or so they disappeared as suddenly as they’d arrived.
Children often have a very fluid sense of what is real. They spend hours communing with bits of fluff-filled fabric or acting out scenarios with lumps of plastic. As a child I made sprawling Lego towns inhabited by families of tiny animals, enacting their lives, soap-opera style, over weeks and months. I remember crying for days after leaving my anorak at the beach, worried that it would be cold and lonely.
We know that play is crucial. It forms a central part of early years education, and is used as the basis of countless therapeutic techniques. It helps children to see things from other perspectives – the foundations of empathy. They use it to make sense of themselves and the world around them. With my imaginary friends I was probably experimenting with the idea of what it would be like to be a different, naughtier version of myself.
And yet the education system is designed to make us into adults and prepare us for the world of work. Even young children, at school, are told to ‘stop daydreaming’, to concentrate on the task at hand. As we grow we’re measured and tested and benchmarked. The pressure to conform, academically and socially, is immense. There’s a sense that all this is for our own good – we all need to earn a living and so we need to be sensible, not the sort of person who talks to imaginary people. Or anoraks.
But still, as adults we create imaginary worlds all the time – our anxieties, and our daydreams, are nothing but stories we tell ourselves, stories set in the future, in a parallel reality that we will never actually reach. And sometimes we go further – think of a grieving husband who still talks to the wife he’s lost. Perhaps this is a painful kind of playing, the inhabiting of a different, in-between reality, where the alternative one is too much to bear.
I find it interesting that at around the same time I began to grow out of playing, I began to experience anxiety as a problem, as something that slowed me down and made life feel difficult. I suppressed it enough to do some of the things I wanted to – I did well in my exams, went to university, qualified as a lawyer… attended to the serious business of ‘real life’.
Motherhood stopped that life in its tracks. It was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. I lived on a knife-edge of fear that something might happen to my baby, or to me; nightmare scenarios that always spiralled towards the worst possible unhappy ending. Anxiety had me well and truly in its grip.
It was my six-year-old self that saved me. While still on maternity leave, I stumbled upon a primary two homework book in which I’d written, “I want to be an author when I grow up”. I felt for this small person who had reached through the years to speak to me in her wobbly, undaunted writing. I started writing because I didn’t want to let her down, with her certainty that she had a voice and stories to tell. Now I see that I was the wobbly one, and she was the one who knew what she was talking about.
Given where I was in my life, it was no surprise that my first novel was about a new mum learning to overcome her anxieties, and coming to terms with her new identity. But in writing I also found my missing link – the ability to play. I did exactly what I’d used to do with my Lego towns - happily sitting down at the end of the day and making my characters act out my stories. I let out the Ux and Timothy spirit that I’d learned to suppress, and let mischievousness into my writing. My characters became as real as my erstwhile imaginary friends, because writing is a way of playing other realities, with ‘what ifs’.
And I discovered that when I was in an intense writing phase – in creative flow – my anxieties didn’t bother me. My old childhood self, the one who knows how to play and to write, also knows how to let me fly above my fears.
I began to look at how my own children worry. Their anxieties – the frightening stories they tell themselves – can be intense but they come and go, like the weather. They don’t get stuck in them. Children naturally explore their fears through play and I believe that when we can’t or don’t play, our fears stop being something we can experiment with, things that teach us about what we might or might not want to do, things that we can leave aside and come back to. They become lead weights that hang around our necks.
Play – or imaginative creativity – does something else to us too. When I told people I was a writer, some of them began to tell me about their secret selves. There was the lawyer at work who gave me a CD of songs he’d written and performed with his band. The mum at the school gate who was applying for Masterchef. The granddad who’d taken up painting. The teacher who’d written a series of children’s stories and never showed them to anyone. These people appeared lit up from the inside as they told me about the things they’d made.
I realised that they were doing the same thing I was, because creativity – whether you’re creating characters in a novel, a complex arrangement of sound waves, or the pattern on a pottery bowl – is bringing something into being that hasn’t been there before. It takes an idea out of your head and makes it into something that others can experience. Like children who learn about empathy through playing, we are taken out of the everyday places where we hide and into a place of connection. It is nothing less than a way into each other’s worlds.
I believe that we need to play, to create, to imagine, as our childhood selves knew how. We need that potent sense that reality can be something mysterious, something beyond our immediate experience. We need it to get out of our stuck places. Out of our loneliness and anxiety and nearer to each other. We need to tell ourselves stories that make sense of the past, and of the place we are now; this point where we stand on the edge of the future. And stories that tell us about that future, and help us to shape it. Play is a kind of thinking that leaves the way open for the unexpected and the transformative.
What of Invisible Fred? It was with some relief, but a little disappointment, that I later realised Charlotte was talking about the ‘invisible thread’ from Granny’s sewing box, which had been used to repair bunny’s previous injury. But the seeds had already been sewn for a new character in my next novel – a sinister imaginary friend for a little boy called Pip. So it seems Invisible Fred was destined for my imaginary world rather than hers. A ghostly bunny-surgeon, a cousin for Ux and Timothy, unnerving and yet sparking with possibility, walking across from one reality into another.
I’m very excited to announce that my second novel, The Last Day I Saw Her, has now been released as an ebook! (The paperback will follow in August).
It tells the story of Janey, a lonely single mum who stumbles into an art workshop class one evening. She can’t believe it when her left hand mysteriously scribbles a picture of two little girls, and a strange message from someone calling herself ‘Hattie.’
Hattie was the name of Janey’s childhood best friend, but she hasn’t seen her since they were twelve. Hattie’s family left Edinburgh suddenly following a series of unexplained events at their home, an imposing Georgian town house that still features in Janey’s nightmares.
Janey’s instincts tell her that she must finally find out what happened to Hattie, but her life is already complicated enough: she’s struggling with motherhood, a custody battle over her toddler son Pip is looming, and she finds herself falling for intense art tutor Steve. And when writing appears on the walls of her flat, and Pip starts playing with a mysterious invisible friend, Janey fears she’s losing her mind. Is it really a good idea to go digging up the past? As dark secrets come to light, she can’t be sure what’s real any more – or who to trust.
The Last Day I Saw Her has taken me in a new direction as a writer. Where my first novel, Tiny Acts of Love was a funny-but-serious story about motherhood and marriage, this time I wanted to write a book centred around a mystery, with a darker, more suspenseful feel.
My own life has taken a different turn, too, since writing Tiny Acts of Love. Back then I was a stay-at-home mum, writing in my spare time between changing nappies and school runs. Now I’ve returned to practising law after a six year break, and I’m a single parent juggling work, motherhood, writing and other challenges.
Beneath the mystery plot, The Last Day I Saw Her is a story about friendship. About how there are some people – perhaps just one or two in the course of a lifetime - who can help you to find yourself when you’re lost, and help you to become the person you’re meant to be.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some wonderful friends through my life. Beloved childhood friends, kindred spirits who've I've met through studying or work or motherhood, and creative friends who’ve supported me on this writing journey of mine.
And there are one or two whom I simply couldn’t have managed without, over the last couple of years, who have believed in me more than I have believed in myself.
So this book - about darkness and light, about the pull of past and future, and the redemptive power of friendship – is for you. I couldn’t have done it without you.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’ve often thought of Rilke’s words when I’ve felt lost, uncertain or sad. I think we all have those stubborn knots inside ourselves that we can't seem to unpick – things that never worked out the way we hoped, things we’ve neither been able to accept nor change, or times when we simply don’t know what to do for the best.
My second novel almost never got finished because it had its own stubborn knots! Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising – the accepted wisdom is that second novels are ALWAYS difficult.
When I wrote my first book, there was a freedom about it that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. I had no expectations. I didn’t know the ‘rules’ of writing either. I let my characters take it over. I was in love with them and just wanted to watch them.
I wrote and redrafted and puzzled over it until I was lucky enough to link up with some other writers, and we agreed to critique each other’s work. I remember the light bulb moment when Jane pointed out that I had a tendency to tie up the loose ends in each chapter as if I was tying a pretty little bow around it. She made me see that you need to plant unanswered questions in the narrative as it unfolds, so that the reader has to keep reading. I cared about my characters so much that I wanted to solve all their problems immediately (preferably within a couple of pages of them arising!) I had to learn when to let the problems sit, and escalate, and mix with other problems, and ultimately be resolved (a process also known as a plot!) The characters became more real than I’d ever thought possible – more themselves – because of the ways they reacted to those problems. The book got published and they went out into the world.
But as I continued into my second novel I had a terrible secret. I knew the rules of writing now... I had it all planned out this time... But I couldn’t get inside the heads of my new characters. I was Trying To Make It Work but I wasn’t in love.
As a more experienced writer, it was easier to recognise the weak points in the book, but I would do so grimly, like a doctor who’d just seen something dreadful on a scan or x ray… the turn of events that was too unbelievable… the characters who wouldn’t say anything to each other… the bit that should have been funny but wasn’t… the bit that shouldn’t have been funny but somehow was! These all seemed like mini death sentences for my story. I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk with my head in my hands.
But I kept going. Slowly, I started to ‘get’ my new characters, and to get them talking. The plot turned into something darker and more complex than I’d originally intended. I finished a draft.
I turned it over to my writer friends, Lesley and Jane, still agonizing about the things that weren’t working. In return, I received an outpouring of encouragement, enthusiasm and insight. It was like throwing open shutters and letting in the light. Jane, Lesley and I emailed back and forth for days on those difficult points. Through this flow of ideas and responses between the three of us, the characters became so real that plot developments, new scenes and even dialogue began to emerge, quite effortlessly, in the conversations we were having. (Note to any new writers out there: if you don’t have a Jane or a Lesley in your life, find one as soon as possible! I certainly couldn’t manage without them.)
As I rewrote the book, I began to realise something: the weak points, the knots and the faultlines in the story are your greatest assets. They are a call to you to think deeper, more imaginatively, to find new perspectives and to use every ounce of power you have as a writer. They will take you outside of your comfort zone to that region where your story changes from something you planned to something beyond yourself.
That’s when I finally fell in love with book 2, with all its sweet spots, its tricky bits and its mysteries. And there are still some mysteries in there that I’ll never solve… Why did Janey fall for a man who was supposed to be the villain of the piece? At the end of the day is he a hero or a villain or something in between? Did certain events in the book have a paranormal explanation or a psychological one?
I finished the book and this brought me to the scariest question of all – would my agent and publishers like it too? They did! It’s being released next year, and I cannot wait to see it there on my bookshelf, a tricky, maddening, much-loved sister for Tiny Acts of Love.
Writing and ‘real life’ mirror one another in so many ways. Neither can ever be perfect. Both are unpredictable, and painful at times. You can never make characters (or people) do what you want them to do. There are always difficulties in our lives and in the world around us, and some of them don’t seem to have a simple answer – or any answer at all.
But, as Rilke knew, and as Jane gently pointed out to me when I was a very new writer, we need to love our questions. Don’t despair over them. Don’t pretend they don’t exist. Stay with them, and be curious about them. They are our greatest gifts. They keep every good story going.
In Tiny Acts of Love, Malkie is Cassie's ex-boyfriend, a bad boy turned (sort of) good. Having not been in touch for years, they've recently ended up working alongside each other. I thought it might be fun to explore Malkie a little further and find a 'voice' for him… So I've turned around one of the key scenes in the book - the funeral car park scene - and rewritten it from his point of view!
So here he is….
As odd situations go, this is off the scale. It 2.30am, and I’m standing in a funeral home car park with my ex girlfriend. She’s convinced she’s just seen a ghost. This Workplace Phantoms vigil has really wound her up.
‘You know, I thought it was Milly for a second,’ she says. ‘The last time I came here I met a little girl. She was here with her mother, who was dying. Milly was acting it out, with a little white carriage, and horses with pink ribbons…’
Her hands are clenched at her sides. I wonder if they’re cold. How they’d feel to touch.
‘Maybe she was just at the back of your mind, because you were back here again,’ I say. ‘That’s pretty heavy stuff, planning you mother’s funeral when you’re only – what?’
‘Six or seven, I’m guessing.'
She looks at me as though I’ve solved all the mysteries of the universe in those two words. Her face opens. Her body seems to melt, sways slightly. I can unlock her, in a way her husband can’t.
My mind goes hazy. She’s like a drug. After all these years it’s just the same. I don’t have to think, I just know what to do. She says something, I say something. She opens out a bit more. It’s like a dance.
I unlock the car and pull a jumper out of the boot. I give it a sniff - it’s been in there since my fishing weekend last summer.
‘Put this on. You’re shivering. I’ve got a blanket in the back there, too. Why don’t you lie down and doze for a bit.’
‘What will you do?’
‘I was just going to sit here in the front and keep an eye on things from here.’
‘Will you put some music on?’ she asks.
I scrabble around looking for something that will pass as chick music. ‘Best Hits of the 90s ok for you?’
She sleeps. I sit. I listen to her breathing. And I reminisce.
I’m standing by the car smoking when she wakes up. I could do with a drink too. Take the edge off this weird night.
‘Did I miss anything?’ She’s rubbing her eyes.
I tell her no. We laugh about the vigil, and her ghost and everything. She’s calmer after her sleep.
‘I must look a mess,’ she says. ‘Have I got mascara all over my face?’
Yes. And the sight of her like that, it sort of undoes me.
‘I’ve never seen you look more stunning.’
We stand for a second. The Verve’s ‘Drugs Don’t Work’ is playing on the car stereo and judging from her face, that seems to be significant in some way.
‘Do you remember this song?’ she whispers.
I don’t have a scooby what she’s talking about. But I nod. It’s part of the dance.
‘Come here.’ I pull her towards me. She lets her body press against mine.
How long would it take to drive her to my flat? We could burn along Braid Hills Road and be on the other side of Edinburgh in eight, ten minutes at this time of night. Maybe we’d pull up somewhere if we couldn’t last that long. I could pull that neat little skirt up over her hips and…
No, you twat. She’s crying. She’s probably thinking about her husband. And - though I still can’t believe this - her baby.…
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘I won’t let anything happen. I know you can’t.’ But it just seems to unlock her further.
I can smell her. I can smell her hair, the scent rising up from her neck, her face, the salt of her tears.
There’s no denying this. She should be mine. I want her lying beside me in my bed, every night. I want to breathe her in, fold my body around her while she sleeps. I want to see her face changing, the moment she wakes up, lose myself in her all over again. Because there’s something about her and me… we fit together.
I pull her closer and pure, hot want surges through me. I think of my flat again. How long before these ghosthunting freaks are finished and we can go?
But no. It’s not part of the dance. I tangle my hands through her hair, her sweet smelling hair, and feel the warmth rising from the skin on the back of her neck. And I let her go.
It’s not part of the dance. Not yet.
In Tiny Acts of Love, lawyer Cassie ends up working alongside her ex-boyfriend, Malkie, and one night, while working overnight on a case together, they have a sweet, intimate moment and a bit of a cuddle. Cassie confesses to her husband Jonathan as soon as she gets home, and you can read that extract here.
In the book, Jonathan appears to take it all in his stride, but I thought it’d be interesting to re-write that confession scene from his point of view… the results surprised me!
Was Cassie right to tell Jonathan? I'd love to hear what you think!
So here's Jonathan....
Two things to bear in mind about that conversation:
1. Sophie had woken up every hour, on the hour, crying for Cassie. So I’d had no sleep and a full day at work ahead. I wouldn’t have minded had Cassie, say, been in hospital or something. But answering legal questions at a nighttime filming of that absurd TV show, Workplace Phantoms? Please.
2. Cassie hadn’t even mentioned that this clown, Malkie, was working at her firm.
I summoned up every last ounce of willpower to be cheerful when she came in. She looked as rough as I felt, very pale, wobbling about on those kitten heels or whatever she calls them. I kissed her, and said cheerful things: ‘Hello!’ How’s my favourite wife this morning? How was the vigil?’
She followed me into the living room, a thin little shape in in a dark suit, looking like a mourner at a funeral. Strangely fitting, since the filming had been at a funeral home.
So I’m sitting in the armchair, trying to feed Sophie yet again. She’s fussing at the bottle and waving her feet around but Cassie’s droning on about this guy called Malkie and…. hang on! This guy is her ex. She’s tried to tell me about her exes before but I’ve always changed the subject. I mean, what man wants to hear about the other men who’ve had his wife?
Cassie’s crying now. Oh God, she’s crying. I pretend I don’t notice (not brilliant, I know) and focus on Sophie’s mouth. You can see the inside of her lips through the plastic of the bottle, clamped around the teat. Like the mouthparts of some weird ocean-dwelling creature. A large sea-snail maybe. I kiss her head.
‘I was so tired,’ Cassie’s saying. ‘And he… he said I looked stunning.’
I can actually feel my blood pressure rising. Fight chemicals rushing to my muscles, my fist clenching around the bottle. But I raise my eyebrows and arrange my face into an interested but detached expression, something I’m adept at after several years with Cassie. Someone needs to keep their feet on the ground when she goes off on one of her… things.
‘That Verve song, ”Drugs Don’t Work” was playing in the car.’
Oh for fuck’s sake. Nineties angst. She would so go for that sort of thing.
‘He pulled me in towards him and… he held me. He held me, Jonathan. We sort of… swayed around, a little bit, to the music. Nothing happened. He just drove me home. But oh God, Jonathan. I can’t believe I did it. I’m so, so sorry.’
I cannot believe what I’m hearing. My wife. He had his paws on my wife.
I feel sick. I’m in danger of vomiting all over my daughter. I hear Dad’s voice in my head. ‘Come on, lad. Think objectively. Stick to the facts.’ He’s right. I’m a professional. I bluff it with clients all the time.
‘So.’ Another wave of nausea comes. I lift my hand to my mouth. Rub my nose as though I’m thinking. ‘A litigation lawyer and an employment lawyer dancing to “Drugs Don’t Work”, one of the most depressing songs of the last century, in an undertaker’s car park.’
She’s holding her breath. She needs me to take this away for her. To undo it.
I narrow my eyes, shake my head. ‘You know, I just can’t get excited about that.’
‘It’s not the most cheerful song in the world, is it?’ She giggles. And the funeral mourner is gone. The strange girl in black who has feelings for other men is gone. My wife’s back.
‘A dirge, definitely.’
‘I’m sorry, Jonathan. I wasn’t myself. It was just a really odd night.’
She says it in an unfinished sort of way, like she’s about to start analysing it, to add in justifications and explanations and the reasons, the deep down reasons, why she still wants to screw her ex but, heroically, managed not to. I can’t listen to this. I get up out of the chair.
‘Why don’t you go to bed for an hour or two?’ I suggest. ‘Mum can look after Sophie. Do you definitely have to go to the office today? It’s not one of your usual days.’
Please. For the love of God, go back to bed.
I want to wrap her up in the duvet, my sweet girl with her pale face and her shaky voice, and keep her there where this Malkie can never get to her with his nineties music and his wandering hands.
‘Unfortunately, yes. I’m doing a lunchtime seminar which Radcliffe wouldn’t let me out of. And I’ve got to finish a report too, because the client’s going on holiday on Friday.’
But she’s talking to my back. I’ve left the room, holding Sophie tight against my chest.
I love you Cassie. I’d do anything for you. Anything in the world, except listen to one more second of this.
Once, when I was a new mum, I summoned a 'sleep expert' to the house. Four-month-old Emily been waking through the night, sometimes up to eight times, and I was at my wits’ end. I’d read all the books – Gina Ford, The Baby Whisperer, and books on attachment parenting – but the advice seemed so wildly divergent that I didn’t have the confidence to follow any of it through. I was pinning all my hopes on the sleep expert because I was going back to work the following month and knew I couldn’t function with so little sleep.
When she arrived, I produced reams of paper, on which I'd charted weeks' worth of Emily's sleeping times to the minute, how much milk she'd drunk, how we’d got her to sleep (rocked her, patted her, fed her, sang to her, given her a dummy, put on her magic lantern, played a special white noise machine that was supposed to be a miracle but sounded more like a Hoover). I was convinced the expert would look at all this and see the solution, but she brushed my charts aside, and suggested we try out her technique there and then, since Emily was due for a nap.
This involved putting Emily in her cot, leaving the room, and waiting until her screams were frantic before leaving her to cry for a further period of three minutes. The idea was to lengthen the period of leaving each time. After two minutes I went in ("No, no!" urged the sleep lady. "Listen - she's just angry, not frantic.") But Emily, who’d somehow pulled a blanket over her head, was so distressed her head was jerking to the side in shuddering spasms and she was gasping for breath. I picked her up and buried my face in the crook of her damp, milky-scented neck, whispering words of love and apology. The expert sat me down and started to explain where I was going wrong. Then she broke off and said, 'Has it been a hard old four months?' That's when my own tears started. All I could see was this exhaustion, stretching on forever. There would be no end to it. I sat there, unable to say a word until my husband came home and ushered the expert away with her £100 fee.
We struggled on for a few months, until one day when I took Emily for a walk in the park. We sat down, in a quiet spot under a tree where the sunshine played on the grass, and I said, 'Emily, what are we going to do about the sleeping? I'm so tired, and I think you are too.' She just gazed at me with her beautiful wide baby eyes, and a new feeling came over me - that we were in this together. I invented my own, gentler, sleep training technique, that was tailored to everything I knew about my daughter, and solved the problem in two nights.
This lesson - that sometimes you have to step up and be the expert – was one I had to learn as a writer, too. To begin with I took all the advice that was going, and worried about all the ‘rules’. I agonised over every criticism of my beloved novel, and tried to change it to please everyone. Until I learned to tune out all those conflicting voices and listen to the only one that really counted.
It was a question of intuition, and by this I don’t mean acting on a whim, because first you need to gather the information and consider it carefully. But then you make yourself quiet, and let the thing you have created (which could be a novel, or it could equally be a child) guide you. You’ll feel the pull of what they need, what works for them, what will help them in their journey of becoming what they are meant to be.
Sometimes it takes a long time, and it will feel like you are making no progress - your child is still waking up every forty-five minutes, can’t get the hang of potty training, or is refusing to eat anything but jam sandwiches. Or the characters in your book remain wooden, mired in a plot that seems more turgid than yesterday’s porridge.
When you’re not sure what to do, sometimes the best thing – the bravest and most sensible thing - is simply to stay in that place of not knowing. To stay quiet and open and let the answers rise up to the surface.
Which is not to say that you’re doing nothing. When you’re a parent, not a single day – not a single hour – goes past when you’re doing nothing. You’re providing the stability, stimulation and one-to-one attention that enables your child to grow and mature emotionally, as well as the food, shelter, warmth and comfort that their bodies need. Making such offerings, repeatedly, day after day, can seem tiring and mundane, but there are no shortcuts, no substitutes for these tiny acts of love.
The writing process is comparable. It’s a question of putting in the hours, even when you're exhausted. Simply getting words on the page, because a book cannot grow without words.
And then, in both writing and parenting, you get those times when it feels like magic. Like when a reader tells you they felt like your novel was actually about them. Or like the other day, when I told Emily about the sleep expert and she fell about laughing.
‘Tell me again, Mummy! Tell me how you saved me from the bad sleep lady.’ Then she launched into a re-enactment of the story, covering her head with a blanket and thrashing about screaming. I was caught short by a shift in perspective – by how she’s grown from a little, milky-smelling bundle into a funny, wise, companion, reframing that rather traumatic episode into something full of laughter and tenderness.
In writing, and in parenthood, in any pursuits that really matter to us, we reach heights of joy and also, sometimes, we come close to despair. That’s when you have to remember – or somehow have faith, when that memory seems distant - that the magic is there under the surface, waiting to come out if you just give it time.
A huge thank you to everyone who came to the launch for Tiny Acts of Love on 8 March. It was lovely to see so many friends there, and it was a very special night for me. Here are some photos...
This week, book blogger Janet Emson kindly asked me to write a piece for her website, From First Page to Last. In this, I reflect about the experience of become a becoming a debut author, including how it felt to stand up and speak at my first book launch! You can read it here.
I've also been busy writing elsewhere: a letter to my six-year old self for the 'Hello Me' column in the Courier, an article about work and motherhood for the Telegraph online, and a piece about the experience of going back to work after having a baby which was published in Best Daily online and the Daily Record - click on the links to read.
Thanks to everyone who has read, shared or commented on the articles as they've come out, and to everyone who has been reading Tiny Acts of Love. Some more reviews have come in, and you can read those here.
Meanwhile, the characters in Book Two have been waiting patiently, the last few weeks, while I've been caught up with the release of Tiny Acts of Love. Time to get back to them, I think. :-)
It's release day for Tiny Acts of Love! I can't believe we got here. What a wonderful feeling.
There's been a lot going on this week, including an exciting Fiction Addiction book tour which includes interviews, guest posts, reviews and a giveaway, open internationally, where you can win a paperback copy of the book.
As part of the tour, I've been talking about the inspiration behind Tiny Acts of Love over at book review site Beauty and the Armageddon.
And at Raven Reviews I've been talking about my writing process, how I get my ideas, and writing in coffee shops :-)
I was given the task of choosing a playlist for Tiny Acts of Love, which you can see over on A Spoonful of Happy Endings (together with a lovely review - thanks Jody!)
I did a guest blog for Jess at A Novel Thought, Jenna at Allthingsbookie and Nina at The Bookish Confections. This is called The What 'If?' Game and may interest anyone wondering whether Tiny Acts of Love is based on my own experiences!
Aside from the book tour, I was interviewed by Liz Wilkins on her website Liz Loves Books. Liz also did an amazing review which I'll post in the reviews section.
Today I was interviewed by Lucy Walton at Female First magazine, talking about, amongst other things, my own favourite tiny acts of love!
Also up today, you can read a piece I wrote about My Book Deal Moment over on book review site Novelicious. This lists 8 reasons why Tiny Acts of Love should never have been published!
And in case you missed it, I did another piece on Novelicious recently, talking about My Writing Room.
THANK YOU to everybody who has supported me on this amazing journey so far, whether by hosting a guest piece or feature, doing a review, Tweeting or Facebooking links, or (hooray!) buying the book!
There's more coming up over the next few days so I'll keep you updated!
It’s been a year, almost to the day, since Black & White Publishing said yes to my manuscript.
I first met Janne, Rights Manager at Black & White, at a book event in summer 2012. ‘Tell me about your new agent,’ she said. She was so warm and friendly that I forgot I should probably be trying to impress her. ‘My book’s women’s fiction,’ I said, shaking my head gravely. ‘It seems like a very difficult market. And I’m not sure exactly where mine fits because has a chick litty feel but also a more serious side.’ (Note the brilliant attempt to ‘sell myself’.) I was expecting her to pull a sad face in return, but she shrugged in a ‘don’t despair’ kind of way, and said that publishers would always be taking on new women’s fiction. We went on to talk about all sorts of book-related things, like selling foreign rights, and I glimpsed a world that I knew, really, very little about, but felt like it should be my world. There was a torrential downpour as I left the event, and I got soaked, but I practically skipped along the street. Between entering that bookshop and leaving it, I’d undergone a Velveteen Rabbit-like transformation… somehow, I felt like a real writer.
A few months later, my agent, Joanna, submitted my finished manuscript to Janne, and then we waited.
Joanna phoned me with the news one evening, just as I was attempting to get my little girls upstairs for their bath. Black & White had said YES. My knees went all wobbly (I’d always thought that was a myth) and I had to sit down on the stairs. After the phonecall, I recovered the use of my legs, and the girls and I danced around in a circle screaming. (My 3-yr-old didn’t quite know what she was screaming about, but certainly isn’t one to pass up a screaming opportunity if it presents itself.)
By the next morning, I’d convinced myself that they were going to change their minds. This phase lasted several months. I had recurring dreams where I’d wake up sweating, sure that it had all been a big mistake - that it was someone else’s manuscript they liked, not mine. I convinced myself that they’d see I only had 129 Facebook friends and 3 followers on Twitter and ditch me in horrified disgust. I must stress here that Black & White were lovely from the start, and never did anything to make me feel like this. It was just the hangover from years of struggling with my own doubts as I wrote the book, then being at the sharp end of painful critiques from other writers, and then polite, professional rejections that said things like, ‘We just didn’t love this enough.’
I was hugely relieved when Janne and her fellow editor, Kristen, sent me their suggestions for edits, as this tended to suggest that yes, it was my manuscript they liked, and yes, they did still intend to publish it. I loved the experience of being edited. They saw things I hadn’t been able to see, and they encouraged me to fill out aspects of the story that needed it. The book became more truly itself than it had been before. After that came copy editing and proofreading. We agreed on a new name - Tiny Acts of Love.
Then, along with the new year, came the cover. Black & White had gone to great lengths to get right – it needed to convey the funny, romantic side of the book yet also hint at the more thoughtful aspects - about motherhood, and how it changes relationships, and the struggle to find an identity within that.
Seeing the cover, in its final form, had quite an effect on me. I know my book inside and out. It’s like a child to me; something I have made, but with a life of its own, which I could feel pushing behind every line as I wrote it. I love this book. I’m fiercely proud of it. And last week I saw the face that it will show to the world.
It seems that I needed – quite literally – to see it to believe it. This is happening. My beloved, firstborn book has been brought to life. The ‘yes’ has sunk in (and it only took a year).
PS You can see the cover and details for Tiny Acts of Love here.
My younger daughter has been wrapping Christmas presents with me. Just turned four, her enthusiasm for ‘helping’ knows no bounds. So she kneels on the floor beside me, eyes wide as she talks about the gifts we’ve bought, and the unparalleled delight that awaits their intended recipients.
I soon realise there’s a lot about wrapping presents that she hasn’t learned yet. She doesn’t know that it’s usually best to cut the paper in straight lines. Or that you need to hold the Sellotape by the ends so it doesn’t fold over and stick to itself. She hasn’t registered that the tape has to go over the joins, and not just anywhere on the paper, or on top of Santa because it makes him shiny.
If I try to intervene, she pulls away, shrieking, ‘I want to do it MYSELF!!’ It’s been a long day, during which I must have heard that phrase a hundred times. After half an hour wrapping one small rectangular box of Lego, I feel like crying with frustration.
So I try, instead, to imagine the neurons in her brain, deep inside that mysterious little head. I picture them growing, reaching towards each other through the dark to make new connections.
And that makes me think about writing, and the learning involved in that equally mysterious process. Writing your first novel is hard. There’s quite a lot to it, most of which you don’t realise until you’re mired in the middle of it. It’s not just the stringing-a-sentence-together part. It’s the storytelling – how to make characters come to life, how to plot, or how to wing it if you want to. How to plant hooks, ratchet up suspense, and weave story threads. How to build up emotions under the surface, and then let them sing. All this has to be learnt, and that’s ok. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play the bassoon first time, or sail a yacht.
Then there’s the second book. You should have got the hang of it by now, right? But no – if anything it’s harder. It’s kind of like becoming a parent the second time. You’ve a feeling it should be easier, but it isn’t. You have to learn all those things again, but for THIS child, this story. And there are new challenges too, like writing new characters while your first ones refuse to let you go. Or learning how to focus on your new book while the first is out on submission, and you’re checking your emails every five minutes.
And all the time that you’re struggling with this, there are constant reminders, everywhere, of how bleak the prospects are for new writers. We read that it’s impossible to get an agent, to find a publisher, to sell books, to keep selling enough books…..
The single most important thing, in all this, is to keep writing regardless. You have to tolerate the uncertainty about your writing prospects, and most importantly you have to tolerate the problems in your own writing during the drafting process - the amateurishness, the lumpen turns of phrase, the wooden characters. You have to be able to shrug at the passages that look like the ramblings of a love-struck teenager, or Enid Blyton on speed. You have to be able to open the document every day and LOOK at that mess without flinching, crying, or deleting the whole lot.
You do this, I think, by learning to switch between reader and writer mode. Using the present wrapping analogy, the ‘reader’ is like a parent, who knows what it should look like, and the ‘writer’ is the child, the one actually engaged in the process. So, you have to let the writer write. Then switch to reader mode, and notice what doesn’t look or feel right. Go back into writer mode, change things at sentence level, or reimagine whole scenes, characters, storylines, if necessary. Then go back to the reader… and so on. Eventually the writer will nail it - IF you give her the chance. Because the writer needs, and deserves, just as much space and patience as the four-year-old who doesn’t know about Sellotape yet.
The good thing is that, by simply doing, you can’t help but learn. My daughter and I persevered with the wrapping. A few days later, we do have a pile of finished presents. They’re a bit lumpy, a bit wrinkly. Some are like flies, bound up in webs of deadly Sellotape. But they’re interesting-looking, prepared with love, in a spirit of endeavour, and all the better for that.
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