Ten whole years…

Anniversaries have a habit of sneaking up on you, don’t they? We are on the eve of November, 2018 – which means it’s nearly NaNoWriMo time again – and therefore it’s ten years tomorrow that I started writing the draft that became Into the Darkest Corner.

I remember talking about it at work, probably on this very day ten years ago. I was working with Naomi, and Chris, and Max, an office off another office, just the four of us in a bank of desks. We were half a mile away from the kitchen and a fairly long way from the toilets. The canteen was upstairs, and most days we’d go and have breakfast together once we’d done all the urgent first-thing tasks. I remember giving them the vague ideas I had for a plot – a dangerous man, charming; how it felt not to be believed – and Naomi asking if she could be first corpse.

The fictional Naomi’s death happens in the first paragraph of the book. It felt like a good place to start. Off I went, exploring Catherine’s story. The office in which Erin asks if she’s coming to the Christmas party was the office in which I was sitting on Friday 31st October, 2008. Her circuitous route home, very different to mine, made a curious sort of sense, and was very good for wordcount. Ditto for the locking of the door. I felt the fear in Catherine’s fingers as she checked that door, as she went upstairs and checked – why?? – her cutlery drawer. I didn’t know at the time why she was doing it, but I went with it.  (Halloween night, after midnight, is a great time to write scary stuff.)

I can’t remember how long it took me to write the whole of the first draft. I certainly carried on into December. I remember beginning to edit in January, and giving up again very soon after. I kept coming back to Catherine’s story, changing bits and pieces. I went on a day’s creative writing course run by the local adult education service. The booked tutor didn’t turn up, so an emergency replacement  was called in. She turned out to be brilliant, and encouraging. She helped me unpick one scene in particular (the one where Catherine visits Sylvia in her ground floor flat, and sits outside with her wondering who lives in the basement) and told me it was good.

At a later date, I remember having lunch with family at a pub in Newmarket, and telling my cousin Michael that I’d written a book. He asked why I hadn’t sent it off to anyone. It hadn’t occurred to me to do that. I don’t know what I thought I was doing, playing at editing with no real purpose. But he asked me what I was waiting for. What I had to lose.

Michael was the catalyst, if you like, the push I needed to do something about this book that seemed to have something good about it, something that still excited me, and yet still felt incomplete, stilted and poor. I’ve told the story many times (I’m sure you’ve heard it), but the genius that is Greg Mosse read my draft, and sent it to Myriad Editions for their opinion, and that was the start of the publishing adventure for me and Catherine.

I remember having that first phone conversation with Vicky, who would become my editor, and her inviting me to visit the Myriad Editions office in Hove. I remember panicking so much about being able to park that I got the Park and Ride, making a journey that was actually pretty simple into something rather more complicated involving several buses. I remember the smell of books in that lovely sunny office. I remember Vicky’s ideas for making the book better: I had a whole series of letters from Wendy. They were like a Greek chorus, explaining everything that had just happened. They could be cut completely. Stuart and Catherine got together halfway through the book; it would be better, Vicky thought, if they didn’t get together until the end. At the time I couldn’t see how that would help, but the fresh perspective was so exciting I went home and revised the book completely. Every one of her suggestions made the book better! I was thrilled by it, and it only took me about two weeks to have the second draft completed and back to Vicky and Candida for their opinions.

I had no idea they were considering publishing my book. The way it had happened – Greg recommending them, as they specialise in debut authors; my visit to them – had somehow put the idea in my head that they were just advising me how to make the book better, so I could maybe one day show it to an agent or something. So when Vicky took me to Starbucks, bought me a coffee and a stroopwafel, and said that they’d like to publish Into the Darkest Corner, I was absolutely shocked. Genuinely. I thought I was dreaming it. I remember Vicky saying I should consider joining the Society of Authors. I remember driving home and phoning my husband at the moment when the A27 joined the A23 – that sliproad – and I remember him saying, ‘That’s it, then. Everything changes from now.’

It felt a bit early to be saying that, but he was right. It was the start.

I feel emotional about it now, thinking back to my school days when I so desperately wanted to be an author, not ever thinking that this could be something that might actually happen. I wrote my whole life for fun, for my own entertainment, and sometimes for other people’s, without ever thinking that I was good enough to finish a book, and edit it, and for it to be published – never mind all the other crazy, wonderful things that came later: foreign editions. Wonderful French schoolkids making me a strange pink cake and doing cover designs of my book in class. Talking about my books in the USA. Spending a morning in the ancestral home of former president James Monroe while waiting to go and speak at a library event in Lexington, VA. Talking about film rights and reading drafts of a script of my novel on a sofa at the Groucho Club. Meeting other authors whose books I have loved, pored over, treasured. Meeting other authors who had actually read my book, and liked it. Reading reviews from people who had never met me, who didn’t know me, and yet had taken the time to read my book, and then to write me a review.

And then, oh then, the people who wrote to me. The emails I received from women, and sometimes men, who had read Catherine’s story and seen echoes of their own experiences. People who were safe, now, and grateful that they had been able to escape. People who were still, years later, looking over their shoulders. People who weren’t safe yet, but had found enough of a voice to write and thank me for representing them in Catherine. What an honour, to have people take the time to write to me! I treasure each one of them, you know. I think of these people often and hope they are doing okay.

So a full ten years has gone past since I killed poor Naomi in that opening line, and so much else has happened. But those early days are still so vivid. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey, my friends. It’s been a wild, wild ride.


I was never a Completer-Finisher


Lovely friends, this morning I’m supposed to be doing my Final Final Christmas Food Shop. I even have a list, because as we all know, to go into a supermarket in the days before Christmas without a list is foolhardy.

You may be able to sense my reluctance, given that I could have had it all done by now, and it’s 11:49 and I’m still farting about on my laptop (I AM dressed though, which let’s face it is a win). I’ve just been working on a guest post for the Author Advice section of my friend and fellow NaNoWriMo winner Donna-Louise’s fabulous blog Newshound to Novelist and I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard to finish writing a novel. Without giving away anything too much from my post, I think it has a lot to do with confidence and being able to bring something to an end without knowing what it will lead to. Ending the first draft is tricky enough, imagine what it’s like making the final edits to a book just before publication? The pressure of having missed something (and the resulting shame when someone points it out in a review) is quite scary.

It’s the same with the infernal shopping. Anyone else get quite anxious about it at this time of year? I’ve never once run out of anything, or not had enough food, or forgotten something which led to the world coming to an end, and yet every year I go through this state of panic. It’s partly because trying to get your normal groceries at the end of December has become something of an ordeal… even though I think it might not be quite so bad now I’m in Norfolk. It feels so much less stressful here. I read online that shoppers were trapped for hours trying to get out of Bluewater at the weekend and, having spent many a grim hour trying to escape from that place, I can well believe it. In Kent I seem to remember supermarkets opening 24 hours a day for the final week. Here in Norfolk, the local Sainsbury’s is open from 0600 till 2200 today, it’s closed on Christmas Day and then open again on Boxing Day. What’s the worst that can happen?

I saw this piece in the Guardian at the weekend and it made me smile…

Wish me luck – I’m off to get my Christmas shop.

Wherever you are, I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas, and lots of love for the end of the year. We’ve nearly made it – and we have so much to look forward to, my dears.



On feeling like a fraud and fighting it


Thank you for all your kind thoughts on my last post. I’m going to try and write more often, here, which of course means that this will be my last post for quite some time.


That last sentence tripped out so easily and funnily enough the sentiment that lies behind it – that my efforts, whatever they are, are absolutely bound to fail – is exactly what I wanted to write about today.

A wise woman who I’m lucky to call a friend, Nike Lawal, told me about Impostor Syndrome a couple of years ago. If you’ve not come across this particular phrase before, let me explain: it’s the feeling that, despite cold hard evidence of success, you are actually a failure. That at any moment someone is going to find you out and reveal you to be a fraud. That your success is down to luck, or accident, or something other than your own capability and hard work.

I’ve felt this all through my life although I never had a name for it. Today, having read a particularly brilliant article that Nike shared on Facebook, I’ve been wondering in an oblique sort of way where it comes from. Without wishing to get into an intense debate about feminism because men suffer Impostor Syndrome as well as women, in my own case as a girl I know I was brought up to believe that certain attributes were preferable to others. Bragging about your achievements is bad. Being modest about your success is good. I don’t think the boys at school had quite the same pressure to keep their feelings about their success to themselves, but then I’m not a boy – I’m basing my opinion there on how they behaved, not how they felt. The external manifestations of the way you deal with success (by bragging or being modest) are all fine as long as, inside, you’re still able to celebrate and be proud of yourself and give yourself a little fistbump…. or is it? If your face says one thing and your heart is saying another, then that’s what the world considers ‘fake’, right? And that particular word feels to me like one that is used, in this context, primarily by women about other women.

In other words, our society sets you up to fail at every possible turn; if you’re female and successful, you can’t brag about it and you can’t keep your pride to yourself without being ‘fake’. In other words, Impostor Syndrome – genuinely believing that you are not as good as you appear to be – is the only way you can be successful and still be acceptable to society.

Small wonder it’s such a battle.

I’ve written about writerly jealousy and my own struggles with that before, but again Impostor Syndrome is something to which writers – male and female – are particularly susceptible. This is largely because the industry we are in sets us up in competition with each other. We are individuals, writing unique books, and yet pegged into a system that tries to get us to fit into slots – genres, sections of bookstores, publishing schedules – and then compares us endlessly to other individual writers, as if trying to establish a giant hierarchical list in which one of us is a better writer than another, or one book is better than another. We compete daily on bestseller lists, Amazon rankings, review space in newspapers, book club recommendations; for agency representation, publication contracts, marketing spend.

We – as writers – try to find our own place in this hierarchy and inevitably feel awkward about it. Placed where we are by circumstances utterly beyond our control, we can’t help but compare ourselves to our competitors peers. Those who are ‘above’ us (who are getting a bigger slice of the marketing budget, or who are top of the charts, or whatever) are subject to our envy, if our book feels better than theirs; those who are ‘below’ us, whose book feels better, make us feel like we are a big old fraud. If we happen to be – however briefly – the top of a heirarchical List, that’s when we get hit by Impostor Syndrome harder than ever before, because it can’t possibly be true that all the books below us in the List are worse than ours. Someone is going to notice, and then we’ll have to admit to being a failure after all – right?

(Note: It’s not about how good your book is. The List is generated by hugely complicated algorithm involving such random things as marketing, word of mouth, little editorial decisions, supermarket buyers, sales reps, Twitter, reviewers, the weather, the economy, Amazon’s internal algorithms which are something else entirely, whether you’ve accidentally tapped into a zeitgeist thing… the variables are endless, and utterly uncontrollable or definable).

What’s even worse is that NOTHING we do as writers can control it. The only result from all of this comparison is that we end up feeling bad (and that stress makes being creative really, really hard – see my last entry).

None of it is real. It’s all a big cardboard cut out, a stage set, a performance, designed to sell books. Once you’ve realised how, actually, no book is really any better or worse than any other book, all that’s left is for you to get on and write the next one, and try not to worry about it.


Now you may think that I’m spouting a whole lot of nonsense given my own unwavering support for NaNoWriMo, which as we all know is all about the competition. You even get a little chart! You compete in Word Wars! If you don’t hit 50,000 words you’re a failure, right? So how’s that supposed to help with Impostor Syndrome?

I’ve been mulling this over this morning and I realised something interesting.

Years ago, one of the ‘tips and tricks’ I used to use during November was to use the ‘search’ function on the NaNoWriMo site, pull up the list for EVERY SINGLE PARTICIPANT, sort by word count, and then find myself on the list. Let’s say I was at number 29,432. I’d then find someone else (randomly, but often I’d choose someone in my country, or writing in my genre, or my age) who was maybe 200 places above me in the chart, and I would make it a goal to try and get above them in the list. The person concerned was never any the wiser, but my competitive streak was fired up, and then determination would kick in, and so the word count would rise. Next time I’d log in, no doubt the person had overtaken me again, and so I had a new target to aim for.

A few years ago the option to do this – to pull up the list of every participant – was removed from the site. I’m guessing this had more to do with the logistics of managing that ever-increasing amount of data with servers that were run by a non-profit organisation than the need to remove the competitive element to the challenge, but even so it feels interesting to note that it’s now much harder to compete with others. The ‘word war’ and ‘sprint’ challenges SOUND like they are competitive, but really they aren’t. You are only ever competing with yourself. You get a cheer if you beat your last count, or your personal best. There is no point really competing against the person sitting next to you, because they may be faster at typing, or they might be handwriting, and in any case you’re writing your own novel, not theirs.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that realising that a thing exists – in this case, feeling like a fraud – and it’s not a good thing, is the starting point for no longer caring about it. Things get so much easier when you begin to stop caring what other people think, and concentrate instead on what YOU feel. (It’s like make up and skin care. About ten years ago I would not have put the bins out without having make up on. These days I often don’t bother, and to my initial surprise nobody has run screaming from my naked face, nor has the world fallen apart.)

I’ve rambled on for a long time and I’d like to come up with a really pithy conclusion… but all I can do is urge you to read that original article, and if any of it rings true for you, follow the advice contained therein.

So, my lovelies. Spread your wings. Be proud of yourself and everything you’ve achieved.

Celebrate the beauty of your words, knowing they are yours and only yours.

Your book is beautiful because you wrote it.

Good writing day