It’s just over a year since I set up this website. I was clear at the start that I didn’t want a blog page. I would have a news page instead. The main reason was that I enjoy writing at length and in great detail – exactly the opposite skills required for a blogger! Also, I wasn’t sure what to blog about. But I think perhaps the thing that’s been holding me back is that it’s much easier to inhabit a character and hide behind them than to speak directly as myself. As you might have gathered, I’m an introvert.
So what’s changed? Suddenly I find I have lots of ideas to blog about. I want to review other people’s books. I want to share what I’ve learnt about publishing. And if I can overcome my fear of public speaking – as I’ve had to do since having two books published – then surely I can overcome my fear of blogging.
So I’m going to start right at the beginning. How I became an author.
I dreamed of being a writer throughout my childhood and teens. When I realised stories were created by people and weren’t magically ‘just there’ to be plucked from the library shelves, I knew I wanted to create these worlds for myself and for other people.
I’ve always made up stories in my head. I do it unconsciously, imagining other people’s lives and setting myself in different situations and dreaming impossible dreams about the future. As I grew up and began to tell people I wanted to be a writer, there were the usual negative comments.
“It’s so hard to get published.”
“It pays so badly.”
“You have to study the great works of English Literature.”
“You must stick to the grammatical rules.”
“You must write about what you know” – not what you love or what excites you or what obsesses you.
“Why not go to secretarial college and learn to type? You’ll always be able to get a job.”
I left school at sixteen, went to secretarial college and began working in London from the age of 17. I kept writing in the evenings and enrolled for writing classes and residential weeks. Finally I listened to the advice I was receiving and signed myself up to do an English A’Level in evening classes, eventually managing to secure a place at Lancaster University when I was 21.
I read solidly for three years, writing essays about other people’s stories, feeling intimidated that I would never be able to write as well as them. After graduating it was easy to slip back to being a secretary in London, though I continued to write in the evenings.
But at the age of 28 I gave up. Blame a heart break which made me feel I had failed as a human being. The rejection silenced my voice. I no longer believed I had anything to say that was worth listening to. I lost faith in the magic of fiction and the happy ever after. It was time to knuckle down, put my dreams aside and concentrate on the real world, which meant having a better career and earning enough to pay the bills.
When I married my husband in my thirties, he knew I’d once dreamed of being a writer and encouraged me to take it up again. I refused to countenance the idea. I was a different person now. Older, wiser. I couldn’t bear the hurt of facing my broken dreams. Besides I was busy bringing up our two children and working part time as a Learning Support Assistant.
Then I had another heartbreak: the loss of my beloved father from cancer. With two young children, a job, a widowed mother and all the tasks in the house and garden that needed to be attended to, I didn’t have time to process the grief properly and pushed on through the pain.
As months turned to years, I became conscious of the most tremendous mental and emotional pressure. At the beginning of 2012 I started jotting down my feelings at odd moments in the day to try and put things into perspective. At first this made me more unhappy. I read back my personal rants at how miserable I was and they sounded petty and ungrateful. There were so many others in the world suffering more than I was. To them, my life must appear unimaginably comfortable and blessed.
In order to gain some emotional distance, I projected my grief onto a fictional character of the opposite sex. He was in a different situation from me, grieving the loss of his job in the financial crash, but experiencing similar emotions. Thus the shallow, materialistic character of Vincent Stevens was born.
I didn’t tell anyone I was writing. I didn’t know if I would be able to finish a complete novel, and didn’t want to have to answer the question, “How’s the book going?” only to have to tell people that I’d given up. If I was going to fail, I was going to keep it to myself.
I planned what I was going to write when walking the dog. I scribbled the ideas down whenever I could, particularly when sitting in the car waiting to pick up the children from school. Within two months the first draft of ‘The Girl at the End of the Road’ was finished and I plucked up the courage to tell my family. My husband, sister and a couple of friends heroically read it and made encouraging sounds.
The difficulty of writing a book is nothing compared to the difficulty of trying to get one published. I sent off my manuscript to agents and publishers and the rejections started to trickle back. I edited and revised and sent out another batch of submissions. Strangely I found that the pile of rejections toughened me up. My crippling fear of failure and rejection stemming from the broken romance in my twenties was disappearing.
I’d given up writing after my first real experience of loss. I’d taken it up again two decades later during another period of devastation. Older and wiser, I now knew that pain, failure and rejection were inevitable aspects of life. Although they make you vulnerable, giving up on something I’d loved because I didn’t want to be a failure at it was not the answer. I learned that doing nothing is much more undermining of a person’s confidence than doing something and falling flat on one’s face. It’s better to be a failure at the thing you love than to be a success at something you hate.
In May 2015 I heard back from a small Independent Publisher called Instant Apostle. They liked the sample I’d sent in and wanted to see the full manuscript. I emailed it to them on a Friday morning, and by the following Monday I receives a phone call offering me a contract.
Reading and writing are transformational processes. We have to use our imaginations to understand the lives of others and to enter into their experiences. Stories offer the possibility of going inside the Other – the princess, the superhero, the detective, the murderer – to experience vicariously a little of the strange and wonderful and terrible thing it is to be human. And that’s a miracle.
I hope that if you are grappling with a sense of failure or loss and are tempted to give up on something, you’ll be encouraged to continue with that thing you love but which seems so fraught with risk.
As the saying goes, ‘If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat’.