I suppose everyone uses real life in their writing. If you had never done anything, never experienced anything, it would be hard to find anything to write about. However, in the novels I have published so far, this has been largely unconscious. People have asked me if my characters are based on various family members or common acquaintances, but I have always explained that they are not intended to be representations of anybody. They may have characteristics of people I know, but they are individuals in their own right. It is the same with settings. The campus in ‘Deceiving Ellie’ is based loosely on Warwick University as that is where I took my degree, but I doubt anyone would recognise it. I added features when I needed them and made up the bits I couldn’t remember.
This time it is different. My new novel will be published in October, and it is based on something that happened to me when I was 18 and working in London. It was a small event and had no lasting impact on my life, but it could have, and that is what I have explored. What would have happened if I hadn’t been quite sensible and put the phone down when I was contacted by a man who had seen me on the train each morning and gone to a lot of trouble to find out where I worked?
It doesn’t end there, either. My mother-in-law was an amazing woman who died of Alzheimer’s in 2001. She had driven ambulances for the Red Cross in countries all over the world during the Second World War and she was strong and independent. She was a feminist without even realising it. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease and it was so sad to see her robbed of her memory and her independence in the years leading up to her death. So she is in my book too. I have used the experience to inform what happens to Judy, one of the main characters, and she also appears as another strong woman afflicted by the disease. I am confident that she would not mind me using her in this way.
So is this new novel autobiographical? That sounds like a silly question, given that there are big chunks of my past woven into it, but the answer is still ‘no.’ I am not Judy. She is the same age as me and she she shares a lot of my past, but she is a different person. She has children roughly the same age as my children, but I have not lifted them and dropped them into these events. I have used aspects of my life as a template, I suppose, but each of the characters is as new as those in my other novels. The risk is that my family will now spend hours trying to work out if they are in the book and thus what I think of them, but that is a risk I will have to take!
‘I really enjoyed your book; couldn’t put it down! Why don’t you send it off to a publisher?” This is a question I am often asked, and I usually say something about not wanting to sit around for six months or so waiting for a two-line letter of rejection. Certainly I have been there and got a metaphorical cupboard of T-shirts to show for it.
Back in the late 90’s, when I wrote the first draft of ‘The Music of the Spheres,’ there was no Amazon to accept my manuscript without question but I wanted to be published. I always have, at least for as long as I can remember, so I started the tedious process of writing covering letters and sending them off with my synopsis and sample chapters. Even the letters were an art form in themselves, as they had to strike just the right balance of confidence and humility, avoid sounding either too dull or too quirky together with a myriad of other considerations I can’t even remember. The whole thing took hours and then, months later, the brown envelope, containing everything I had sent, would arrive back on my doormat.
More often than not, there was no evidence of anyone having read the sample chapters. Sometimes, even the synopsis looked untouched. After maybe nine or ten attempts the manuscript went into a drawer, to stay there until I started working part time, nearly fifteen years later.
There are other good reasons to self-publish. I have full control over my novels. I get a royalty percentage that traditionally published authors would die for. I can write as much or as little as I like in any genre I choose and my deadlines are all self-imposed. So no, I won’t be pursuing any publishers and begging them to to read my novels. I’m quite happy as I am, but what if a publisher approached me? What if one of my novels took off and became noticed? Would I jump at the chance to become traditionally published or would it be ‘thanks but no thanks?’ The answer is that I honestly don’t know and, in all probability, it’s not a decision I will ever have to make.
Non-writer friends often express surprise when they find out I have published a novel. ‘Oh, that must be so exciting,’ is the most common remark, but although there is some truth in that, there are a lot of other emotions involved.
To begin with, there is the self-doubt. As I finish a novel I am often very pleased with it and think it is the best one so far, but as publication approaches, this is usually replaced by very different feelings. Is it really any good? Should I work on this character or that aspect of the plot? Is it all a load of rubbish? At this point, I have to take myself in hand and listen to wiser voices, or the novel would never be published at all and, so far, I have managed to do that.
Then there is publication day. Yes, there is excitement, but there is something else that I can only describe as advance disappointment. It will probably sell a few copies, but I know there will be no zeros on my sales figures. I know the chances of selling beyond my friends, family and colleagues on the extremely supportive Kindle Users Forum are very small. I know that I will be very lucky if this book creeps into the top 30,000 books in the Amazon charts and even more lucky if it stays there for any length of time. I can’t help it, I know it’s silly, but I still want that best seller even though I know it’s never going to happen!
So why do I keep doing it? Why do I keep publishing novels that a tiny proportion of potential readers will even hear about let alone read? Well, the answer lies in my friends’ perceptive comments after all. It is hugely exciting to get even a few sales. It fills me with delight when I get a positive review. It is amazing when someone tells me they read my book and couldn’t put it down.
That’s why I will continue to hope for that day when sales really take off. I will write another novel and another one after that, for as long as I have the energy and brain-power to do so. I will play the waiting game because I can’t really imagine a life without the highs and lows it brings and because the highs outweigh the lows, every time.
And that was only the start of it. Add long, rambling sentences – at least one of which comprised a whole paragraph – and that was the state of my prose before I let an editor get his hands on it. I must be honest, this was not what I was expecting. I don’t suffer from low self-esteem, at least where my writing is concerned, and my main reason for wanting an editor was to advise on issues of characterisation and plot. I fondly imagined that most of my text would come back pretty much as it started, with a few typos identified, maybe the odd spelling mistake here and there, that sort of thing. So it was a bit of a shock to see every page littered with tracked changes and I had to decide what I thought about this.
Should I stick with what I could consider my inimitable style and reject these changes, or should I have a good look at my writing and try to see it from another’s eyes? Fortunately I decided on the latter course of action and now I think my novel, The Butterfly Effect, will be a lot easier to read once it is published.
That left the issues of plot and characterisation and another decision to be made. Was the ending really unsatisfactory? Did the suspense build up effectively right to the climax, only for the whole thing to be resolved far too quickly and easily? Well, yes, that was true too, although I hadn’t seen it myself, and there followed an intense and sometimes painful process in which I suggested a number of alternative endings only for each to fall short. It is to the credit of the editor that he didn’t give up and advise me to go with the least worst of these options, but continued to encourage me to find an ending that would be worthy of the rest of the book. And I found it, eventually, and I think it will have made the novel so much more satisfactory from the reader’s point of view.
So that was my first experience of working with an editor. It will certainly change my writing, and I hope for the better. It will also make me think very hard about the structure of my next novel and whether the ending does its job at least satisfactorily. But does that mean I will not need an editor next time round? The answer to that is an emphatic ‘no’. I am sure that the experience would be different, but equally useful. I only hope that The Butterfly Effect sells well enough for the proceeds to pay for it!
Note: my editor was David Wailing from Storywork and I would recommend him without reservation.
This is where I hope to keep readers informed about my writing – past, present and future. I am aware that communicating in this way is not my strongest point, but I aim to do better. There is a little information about me and a lot more about my books as I believe they are considerably more interesting than I am! I also intend to write occasional blogs about the writing process and associated issues if something interesting occurs to me. We will see. For the moment, I hope readers will browse through my existing books and maybe resolve to look at the new ones as they appear. I don’t think there is much more an author could hope for and I shall be very happy if it happens.
If anyone is wondering about the significance of the photograph, it was taken at one of my favourite spots in Tuscany. We have been there many times and the peace and tranquility is great for writing.