This lovely review of The Maid’s Room has made my Tuesday. A massive thank you to Pam, and to everyone who has bought my book and reviewed it. I really appreciate it.
There I was beavering away on book three when I discovered that a well-known author might be about to publish a novel with the same central concept as mine. I had logged onto the early reviews and a reader had mentioned the words, ‘a mother with a secret.’ Oh, Christ, I thought, and so began my two-day long endurance until the book came out.
I bought it and read in a frenzy that ripped the pages and wrecked the spine. Huh – take that, stupid book! Reader, it was all I could do not to stamp on the thing, because what stared up at me was virtually the same book as mine. It even had an almost identical opening scene.
It felt as if there was a brick in my stomach. I was 50,000 words into my first draft, for goodness sake. It was possibly one of the worst first drafts I’d ever written, but still. . .
I’ve got the last three chapters of the published-by-another-author book to go, but in truth I can’t bear to read anymore.
Are there any truly original ideas anymore anyway? Isn’t everything just a pastiche of what’s gone before? I continued on this spiral of unanswerable questions that might have been snatched from my three pretentious years as an English Literature undergraduate. And then, I rallied.
It wasn’t as if I was writing a psychological thriller like this author had, after all. And my second half was truly different. Mine was funny in places, well, ahem – it would be eventually.
My writer friends helped persuade me that all would be okay. ‘You’re writing up-lit though,’ one said.
I plonked myself in front of the computer, determined to carry on. But all that fretting had provided a pause, and into it had fallen a chunky great question mark. Did I actually like this idea anymore? Did I really want to go on with it? I started doing some research – daring myself to come up with a new idea. I wasn’t sure I could. I read news pieces, features, true life stories. There was something brewing, I just didn’t know what yet.
A day later, I was in the middle of hoovering the stairs when an idea landed, and then another. Dots started to join in my head.
I wrote an outline and when I compared it to the already-done idea, I decided I liked my new one better.
Perhaps I’ll go back to my old idea one day (I especially liked my peripheral characters – sigh), but for now I’m moving on. I may not have 50,000 words anymore, but what I do have is a scruffy outline, a new story that I keep daydreaming about, oh and 1,600 words so far. I’m going to see where this new story takes me and hope very hard that nobody else gets there before I do, but you know what, even if they do, all will be well.
Click here for a survival guide to discovering your story idea has already been done. It helped me.
I don’t dread reading reviews of my book as much as I thought I might before I got published. But then maybe that’s because The Maid’s Room is a few weeks into paperback publication. I know there are readers out there who love it (thank you, lovely readers – I appreciate all of you) and this makes the inevitable fact that some people don’t and won’t like my book easier to bear.
But there’s a kind of review that leaves me flat – the oh-so-beige three-star review.
According to Goodreads, the three-star review means, ‘liked it.’ Not a horrendous verdict then. But log onto the WHSmith website, and you’ll find three stars mean ‘average.’ On Wordery, a three is a mere ‘acceptable.’ Oh.
To many of us – readers and authors alike – Goodreads stars equate with school grades:
5 stars = A.
4 stars = B.
3 stars = C.
2 stars =D.
And 1 star = someone who’s very cross indeed.
If you look more closely at three-star reviews, you’ll notice that they’re sometimes attached to opinions that are polar opposites.
Rick from Petersfield might say, ‘I can’t believe the publisher has charged £7 for this muck,’ and then award three stars. While Sal from Worcester ‘liked it a lot’, such a lot in fact that she mentions the number 3.95 in her review, then lights it up with three stars only. Oh go on, Sal, couldn’t you have rounded up and given a four?
For me, a three is a book that I liked in places, but there were a few things that weren’t quite right about it. Maybe I couldn’t quite lose myself in the narrative and was always aware of the book in my hands and the words on the page.
But if a Goodreads three means, ‘liked it,’ perhaps it’s higher than a grade C. A B- possibly? And though the pushiest of parents might disagree, a B- isn’t too shabby at all.
I think I might have just made peace with three stars. I felt a bit mean giving them out – but now I don’t feel quite so bad.
What does a three-star review mean to you, readers and writers? I’d love to know.
A dear friend gave this canvas to me last week. It is a painting of the cover of my novel, The Maid’s Room. My friend, Paola, didn’t just pop down to Snappy Snaps and copy the cover onto a canvas, she took weeks to paint it, and what’s even more remarkable is that she’s never painted a canvas before.
She watched YouTube videos on how to paint a canvas; she made regular visits to an art shop to match each of the cover’s colours; and she repainted parts numerous times to get the picture exactly right. It’s an extraordinary gift and a symbol of true friendship.
It was thanks to my friends that I carried on writing my first book, even when trying to get published seemed like a fool’s errand. My friends listened to me complain and snivel as rejection after rejection plopped into my email inbox. My friends made me laugh. They kept on regaling me with their own stories, and they made their way into my books, my friends – funny moments they shared, their burning questions about the state of the world, their interactions with people.
The Maid’s Room and my next book called The Swap, which is published in April next year, both ask the question, what is family? – if it’s broken, if it’s small, if it doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes people tilt their heads and look sorry for me when I tell them I don’t have any siblings – my daughter doesn’t either – but for me, friends are family. They’re the ones that connect, that get you, and they can inspire you to do all sorts of things you thought you might not be capable of.
So here’s to discovering talents you didn’t know you had, to art, and to books, and to friendship. Oh, and now seems like just the right time to stop faffing around and write the acknowledgements page for my next book.
On submission? Then you’re either roller coasting upwards, or plummeting down; maybe though you’ve only just begun.
It still hurts to look at my fat folder of rejection letters, formerly known as ‘The Folder of Doom’, but I can’t bring myself to delete any of them. They’re badges of honour, aren’t they? Look at this pile, and yet still I carried on and on and . . .
Unwelcome though these missives were, they did contain some upsides though. Honest. Here’s what:
1. The Encouraging Rejection Letter
‘You write vividly, well.’ This was my first ever rejection letter dated 21 January 2013. It was for a novel called Out of The Cupboard – which was a pretentious precursor to The Maid’s Room. If an agent was bothering to be complimentary, then perhaps I was onto something, I thought. I chose to ignore every iota of advice that letter contained – ‘There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s taking too long to focus.’ I should have paused, thought deeply about what the agent was saying. Instead, I kept sending out the book regardless. Even if you don’t take all the advice an agent gives you, it’s probably worth taking note.
2. The Bog-Standard Rejection Letter
The standard letter where the agent’s assistant has typed your name over somebody else’s – ‘I’m going to pass’, ‘I didn’t fall in love’ – will have you tutting/swearing/crying into a cushion depending on how many times you’ve received such a response. Well, grind my ego under the sole of your sandal, why don’t you? Know this: there may well be a next time. Several of these bog-standard replies turned into requests for a full when I sent the agents a book that was more evolved than my first offering.
3. The Request for a Full (Followed by a No-Thanks) Letter
This will get your excited hands shaking over your keyboard, adding superfluous commas everywhere, and doing frenzied spell checks. It’s a moment to be celebrated because this could be the one. And if it isn’t, all is not lost. This is an opportunity to get feedback. Every agent that requested a full from me (bar one – see point 4) has given me invaluable feedback which helped me to improve my writing.
4. The Absent Rejection Letter
This is when the agent requests your full manuscript then doesn’t even bother replying. Ever. It’s happened to a couple of writers I know, and it’s happened to me as well. It’s incredibly disappointing, then relief descends. I lose my keys on a daily basis; I shove my post into a pile and riffle through it, papers flying, when I need to find something. So does someone as disorganised as me want an agent who doesn’t even reply to represent me? No, I do not.
5. The Rip your Novel Apart Rejection Letter
One agent requested my whole book then listed the things she loathed about it. Her email might have mentioned the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘talent’, but it also said my ‘story was too bleak’ and that one of my characters was ‘too wet’. It was my face that was wet after reading that. And after I mopped up my tears, I peppered the air with swear words. It was my lowest point, but it was also a turning point because it was then that I decided to set that novel aside. I took my central idea and wrote a new novel, the one that eventually landed me an agent and a publishing deal.
If a rejection letter happens to land in your inbox today, chances are you’re going to feel horrible. But you’re in this for the long haul, so use anything these letters tell you to make your writing stronger. Get angry and use that anger to power you on.
My paperback has been out for a week, but the hardback edition of The Maid’s Room was published five months ago. Here’s what being published has taught me so far. . .
- The first bad review hurts – but your back gets broader.
- A five-star review is fabulous, a one-star review can be amusing, but oh god, a three-star review. . . I prefer extreme reactions.
- Being published is not going to imbue you with the confidence you imagine when you’re still struggling to get representation – there’s a new list of things to worry about.
- You know all that gushing gratitude towards literary agents in authors’ acknowledgements, well, I concur. Your agent is your guardian angel, the font of truth, the person who puts their arm around you when you’re wobbling.
- Before your first book is published, it’s a good idea to have written the first draft of your second book. I’m not sure I would have had the head space to write book 2 with all the debut fanfare.
- There are some blooming lovely writers out there.
- Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Not everyone gets a London Underground poster.
- The editor is right 99.9 per cent of the time.
- Your mood is inextricably linked with your Amazon ranking, even though you’ll be unable to make any sense of the algorithms at all.
- The first draft never gets any easier – no matter how many times you’ve faced the blank page.
- A complete stranger saying they’ve connected with your book? Nothing beats it; it’s the most exquisite gift of all.
- Spotting your book in a bookshop is exciting, but instantly you’ll be overcome with a desperate yearning for someone to buy it.
- Seeing your book in a library will make you want to dance in the aisle.
- You’ll think little old you can’t possibly stand up in front of a room full of people and make a speech or give a talk, but you’ll surprise yourself.
- Publishers sometimes send you books to read – it’s like opening a birthday present.
- Want to feel good? Get off social media and write.
The lighter, smaller, cheaper (hooray!) version of The Maid’s Room arrives on shelves tomorrow, its cover decorated with quotes from magazines including Heat, Prima and Red. I can’t wait to spot it in a bookshop, and if you do, I’d love to see some pictures via Instagram or Twitter.
Meanwhile, The Maid’s Room has been chosen as a BookEnds pick of the month for April.
A big thank you to the bloggers who’ve reviewed it so far, and all the lovely readers who invested in the hardback and gave it a big thumbs-up on Goodreads.
There’s still time to enter my giveaway on Twitter. My daughter will pick a name out of a hat tomorrow evening, then I’ll pop a free signed copy into the post to the winner.
One more sleep!
Gazing out of the window. Eating cheese. Star jumps. Looking at pictures of cute dogs. These are just some of the things I’ve been doing to avoid my first draft.
I’ve got high hopes for my third book. I want to create loveable, three-dimensional characters that are completely different to the ones that have appeared in my first two novels.
But so far it’s been like chiselling a channel through rock while wearing a pair of steamed-up glasses; it’s hard graft, slow-going and I can’t see all that far. I’ve armed myself with a plan because that works best for me, but who the hell is my main character? I know what she looks like and I’ve got a list of her traits, but how does she speak? How does she feel? What kind of deodorant does she wear, if, in fact, she wears any at all?
Just to remind myself I can do it (so can you), I looked back at the first draft of my second novel called The Swap which I’ve polished to a sheen and is now in the hands of my editor at Hodder. What a relief it was to see that the first draft was rough, clunky and uncertain.
One of the characters was having an affair with a male nurse, but by the final draft wasn’t. There was an entire subplot that I was chest-puffingly proud of until I realised it made no sense whatsoever. The tenses were jumbled, and it’s clear one of my main characters remained a stranger to me for quite some time. She started life as a Victoria, had a stint as a Kate, then transformed into a Tess, and a Tess she has stayed.
So I’m clinging to the hope, – no, let’s be bold, the belief! – that although the 7,000 words I’ve written so far are all in the wrong order, I will end up with something good. I’ve just got to let go and write, not stultify myself by thinking this has to be brilliant. First drafts are meant to be crap after all. So I’ll push on my steamed-up glasses again and keep writing through the labour pains. I’ll just have another quick look at Twitter first.
The very best thing about being published is seeing my book in libraries across the world. I’ve glimpsed it on library shelves in Australia and South Africa, and this latest picture comes from a reader in South Devon who loved The Maid’s Room so much she donated it to her local library.
It’s a fantastic feeling knowing my book will be borrowed by people who might love it, and if they don’t – they can simply return it and borrow something else.
I’ve written lots about where the idea for The Maid’s Room came from, the anger that made me write, but its true beginnings came from going to libraries. My mum and dad took me to our local library regularly when I was a child. It was a place to be free, sitting in the alcoves reading, and selecting dozens of books to take home. It was here that I caught not just the reading bug, but the writing one too – if Jilly Cooper could do it, if Judy Blume could, maybe I could too. I buried my head inside books and when I emerged, I’d scribble poems, diary entries, plays.
I kept on going back to the library for more. I found ideas, information, glorious escapism, the belief that things could be different. I cried, I fell in love; I found empathy, nuance, and kindness.
When I left home, the vast library at Sussex University became my frequent haunt – struggling through literary theory, becoming addicted to Toni Morrison, smoking in the basement cafe.
After university, my library visits stopped altogether. I didn’t have that much money, so I didn’t buy that all that many books. No surprises then that my early twenties were an unhappy time in my life – I read little, and as a result stopped looking outwards so much; I became self-obsessed.
Things changed when I became a journalist – writing almost every day and journeys to work filled by reading. When my daughter was born, I joined a library again, helping to build her imagination and keeping mine alive. It was good, essential even, to get out of the house and be among books and people.
When I moved to Singapore in 2009, and decided that this was it, no more messing around, I really was going to write a book, Queenstown Public Library gave me wings. I put so many empty slots into that creative writing shelf on the second floor. I checked them all out – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies; 90 days to Your Novel – (hell, it took me a lot longer than that).
After years of false dawns and endless perseverance, Hodder & Stoughton published my book in November last year. My childhood library – Barham Park – gets a mention in my acknowledgements. Like so many libraries, the council closed it down, but thanks to a group of a determined campaigners, another library has opened nearby, albeit one run by volunteers.
When I saw The Maid’s Room in my local library for the first time recently – cover facing outwards, not just the spine – I was giddy with excitement. People might actually borrow it, I thought; they might experience disgust, empathy, love, the idea that things can change. I stood there for a while just staring at my book. And when I returned a few days later, someone had taken it out. To see my book in the library was wonderful, but to see it gone better still.
In this blog post, I ask journalists-turned-novelists what their steepest learning curves have been . . .
Sometimes people nod their heads knowingly when I tell them I’m a journalist. ‘See that’s why you’ve managed to get your book published, you were a writer already.’ But there’s a world of difference between writing magazine features or newspaper stories and writing a book with 300-plus pages. And the differences have become even more apparent since my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, was published in November.
I’ve been interviewed several times over the past three weeks and I’m trying to get used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them. Over the years, as a journalist, I interviewed quite a few people who didn’t have all that much to say for themselves – yes or no answers, without elaboration. All while my blank notebook stared up at me, along with the creeping fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fill my 1,000-word feature with. When I’ve been interviewed, I have to admit I’ve given some monosyllabic answers myself. ‘Why did you write that scene the way you did? ‘Er, I’m not sure.’ ‘And what about the juxtaposition of light and shade in chapter 7?’ ‘Erm . . .’ I’ve also fallen into the other extreme of filling the awkward spaces with seemingly never-ending gibberish.
Yep, I may be a journalist, but I’m definitely a newbie now I’m on the other side.
Here, best-selling authors and debut novelists share their thoughts on the differences between journalism and writing a book.
Fiona Cummins– Author of Rattle, and The Collector which will be published on 22 February 2018.
‘I was surprised by how exposing it felt to be critiqued by readers. I was used to writing other people’s stories – the focus of attention was never on me – and, then, suddenly everyone had an opinion. It gave me some sense of what it must feel like to have a newspaper story written about you, whether you liked it or not. Ultimately, you have no control over what others may think.
‘It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. With my tabloid newspaper background, I was used to working at breakneck speed. Publishing moves much more slowly. I’ve also had to learn to pace myself. Writing a 90,000-word manuscript takes time – I can’t just dash it off in a day.’
Francesca Hornak – Author of Seven Days of Us
‘The thing I struggled with in fiction is making bad things happen . . . This isn’t true of all journalism, but in glossy magazines there’s a constant aim to create a kind of aspirational, fantasy world, where people cook recipes and buy £200 moisturisers and scented candles. In fiction, you need to make your characters miserable, otherwise there’s no story. At first I was a bit squeamish about that, but I’ve got the hang of it now.
‘Long deadlines can be hard too; there isn’t quite enough pressure in publishing.’
Chloe Mayer – Author of The Boy Made of Snow
‘I work in news rather than features, so the longest it usually takes for my copy to appear as a newspaper article is the next day. In contrast, the book industry moves at a glacial pace! My debut novel, The Boy Made of Snow, was released last month – more than a year and a half after I signed my publishing deal!
‘As a journalist I write stories all day long, but many articles are limited to just a few hundred words. It’s a completely different skill set to make up a story from scratch and tell it over 100,000 words – with an arc, sub-plots, and an entire cast of characters.
‘The first thing all news reporters are taught is that they must tell the whole story in the first sentence; the introduction must contain the crux of what’s happened and why. But with fiction, you must gradually build a world and let the story unfold over time.
‘Another difference is that in journalism you must explicitly lay out all of the facts and be as clear as possible. Whereas with fiction, you often have to hold back – and what isn’t said, or revealed, is often as important as what is. So learning how to write a novel as I went along was the steepest learning curve for me.’
Juliet West – Author of The Faithful and Before the Fall
‘As a journalist, and especially as a news reporter on a daily paper, there’s a pressure to get your story out very quickly. Ideally that story will be word-perfect straight from your notebook. So when I first began to write fiction I attempted the same modus operandi. I thought I could file my story straight onto the page and all would be effortless and wonderful. Of course, what came out was terrible, so I would re-work every sentence, trying to make it perfect before moving on. I think I wrote three paragraphs over a fortnight, and they were desperately worthy and self-conscious and forced.
‘I realised I needed to give myself more freedom to write a first draft, allowing the story and characters to take root before going back to add polish and finesse. So that’s my top tip. Give yourself a break. Your first draft is yours alone – it’s not going to turn up in the next day’s paper with your byline on it.
‘When I did get a publishing deal in 2013 I was delighted, but also daunted by the prospect of a publicity campaign. Somehow I’ve risen to the challenge, and I’m really proud that I’m able to stand up and give a talk, or chat to a presenter on live radio. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that I should be the one asking the questions.’
• Holding Image by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash