Eleventh Day of Advent: Writing

Two For JoyOkay, so I know reading has already featured in this series, and now we’ve got writing, but I can faithfully promise that ‘rithmetic will not be making an appearance. Maths does not, never has and, I suspect, will never make me happy. Although I can’t say that any more, because apparently lots of children develop a negative attitude to maths because they’ve picked it up from their parents. And the reason that Britain is not so Great in international league tables is that it is socially acceptable, almost desirable, to be rubbish at maths. Educated, middle-class women like me, who might be embarrassed to say they couldn’t spell properly, or hadn’t read a book for five years, take a perverse pride in announcing that they can’t add up. So, I’m trying not to do that in front of Anna, but on this blog, which Anna is not going to be reading any time soon, I admit that maths do not get on. However, I digress.

The enjoyment I get from writing has been my most significant self discovery of the past few years. I have written at length on this blog, and elsewhere, as to how my need to reclaim some time and mental space for myself from the ups and downs of life as a fulltime mum led to me writing my first novel, Two for JoyI am still astonished, thrilled and, to be honest, bloody proud of myself that it got published. Not only that, but I went on to write a second novel, To Have and to Hold and a seasonal e-novella, On the Third Day of Christmas. Yay me! As I talked about in my social media post, some of the pleasure I get out of writing To Have covermy novels and my blog is the knowledge that my words are being read, my ideas are going out into the world and, hopefully, providing other people with enjoyment, interest or amusement. But it’s not just that. Simply the act of writing, sitting down with just my thoughts and my beloved Macbook, and creating something that wasn’t there before, and would never have existed without me, is exhilarating and uplifting. When I’ve had the chance of a few uninterrupted hours writing I get a real high. It’s harder to describe than it probably should be for a writer, but the best analogy I can come up with is that it is the mental equivalent of a spa.

Before it closed (sob, sob) my husband had treated me to a few different days at the Covent Garden Spa. I would swim a few leisurely lengths, relax in the delicious warmth of the jacuzzi, have a massage and stretch out on the loungers with a trashy magazine or a friend to gossip with, and it was sheer bliss. Muscles I didn’t know I had would stretch and relax. Heaven. Just writing this is making me long for a spa day! But a good writing session really does produce those feelings in my mind. To be honest, it is less good for my body – hours hunched over a laptop tend leads to cramped aching shoulders, stiff on the third day of christmas coverfingers and sore blurry eyes. But it’s worth it for the mental uplift.

I may not have gone further than my dining room table, or a local cafe, but writing, like reading, gives me an enormous sense of intellectual freedom and potential. It is also the chance to do something of my own in the world, rather than seeing myself only in relation to my family, much as I love them.

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On the Third Day of Christmas

I’ve blogged before about my frustrations with pregnancy tiredness and lassitude, and nowhere has that been more true than with regard to my writing. I launched my second book, To Have and to Hold in June – luckily this was all finished, bar a few edits, before the blue line in the pregnancy test appeared – and would have hoped that five months later my third book would be well under way. It hasn’t quite worked like that. For a start there have been many days when my body saw me sitting down as a cue for instant, overwhelming sleep, and so I could virtuously settle myself down with my laptop only to wake two hours later with keyboard imprints on my face. And then there was the problem of what to write

The book I started, with a plot which had been spinning around in my head for a long time, focussed on three couples experiencing the miseries of fertility problems and miscarriage. It’s a subject close to my heart, and in large part I think I had planned the book as catharsis; a way of coming to terms with the babies I had lost, and coping with the fact that my much-wanted second child might never be born. When I was lucky enough to become pregnant, this subject suddenly felt far too loaded. I struggled on for a few chapters, but always ended up depressed, anxious, in tears or, frequently, all three. The combination of hormones, my ongoing anxiety that this is indeed too good to be true, and that something will go wrong with my pregnancy, and an emotive storyline proved too much for me. I decided to shelve that project, at least for the time being. The characters are still in my mind, and I have a feeling that I’ll come back to them one day, but now is not the time.

on the third day of christmas coverSo, if not that, then what? Almost without thinking about it I decided that a short story would be the perfect project and, as Toby and Julia, the lead characters from my first book Two for Joy are very close to my heart, it seemed natural to return to them. At the beginning of Two for Joy they are both thirty, and the reader discovers that they have been friends since meeting at university 12 years earlier. There are a few hints and flashbacks throughout Two for Joy, but the entire time I was writing it I felt that I knew Toby and Julia’s back story, just as clearly as I know my own or that of my friends. And so I wrote it down. As readers we share Julia’s trip down memory lane as she reflects on the Christmas she has just spent with Toby, and what it might mean in the context of 12 years of their friendship and romantic near-misses. The result is a short story/novella called On the Third Day of Christmas which will be published as an e-book on 4 December 2014 (coincidentally just a few days away from my due date!), and is available to pre-order now. I hope it will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Two for Joy, but it is also a stand-alone story.

As for Book Three, well, I do have a new idea I’m working on, but there’s absolutely no way that the book is going to beat the baby. And although it’s nearly six years ago, I do seem to remember that life with a newborn isn’t exactly conducive to literary endeavour. Or getting dressed, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, leaving the house etc etc. So I am going to award myself a few months of maternity leave from writing, although I will continue to blog when time and sleep levels permit. When I emerge from the fog of the early stages it will be brilliant to have something all lined up and ready to work on. I definitely found that having one child increased my motivation, efficiency and productivity, so am hoping that a second baby will have a similar effect. In which case I could be looking at a third book by my baby’s first birthday. Watch this space…

The long and short of it

It’s a bit of a funny time at the moment. After a few months of pregnancy-induced exhaustion, where not very much at all got done, my energy levels are starting to rise again. That’s probably just as well, because my third book isn’t going to write itself, I still want to promote To Have and to Hold wherever and whenever possible, and in a moment of madness I suggested to my agent that possibly writing an e-book short story might be a good idea. She and my editor both agreed, so now that has found it’s way onto my to do list as well. Over and above work things, I also want to try and catch up with friends I’ve pretty much ignored since April (apologies, by the way, if you’re one of those), and it turns out that being mum to a Reception age child at the end of the summer term is pretty much a full-time job as well.

In the next three weeks I am helping out on the Reception school trip (120 five year olds going by bus to the park in forecast temperatures of 26 degrees. What could possibly go wrong?), attending Sports Day, Parents Evening, Reception Strawberry Tea, finishing the Family Literacy Course I’ve been attending for last 8 weeks, and very possibly having the pleasure of an extra day of Anna’s company if the NUT strike as planned next week. Hard on the heels of all that is a six week summer break, when, with the best will in the world, I can’t see much writing happening.

I reckon I have eight days of Anna-in-school time, when parents are not expected to attend for any reason, left before the holidays. Chances of me knocking out a 20,000 word short story in that time?

To Have and to Hold Book Launch!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Generally I hope this isn’t true because, firstly, I am a writer so words are very much my business, and secondly, as regular readers of this blog will have spotted, I’m not great with pictures. I haven’t quite adjusted to the 21st century – my phone does take photos, but I’ve not yet worked them out how to get them off my phone, and I haven’t remembered to take my camera to a social occasion since about 2008. Plus I’d need to reload the software that lets me transfer photos from camera to computer onto my new laptop, and that just seems frankly unmanageable. So, as I say, in general I really hope words are worth more than images.

Today, though, I am having a volte face. Yesterday was the publication of my second novel, To Have and to Hold, and last night I held a launch party for it, at the local cafe where much of it was written. I could try to write a lengthy blog post about how lovely it was, how kind and supportive my friends and neighbours were, what a great atmosphere it was. However, so far today I have had to take the cat to the vets, make fairy cakes for the school summer fete tomorrow, sort out books and bric a brac to donate for the fete, go shopping as we’d run entirely our of milk (Anna’s breakfast was a banana and a chocolate muffin), and I still have to sort out children’s books Anna does and doesn’t like for the Family Literacy class at school this afternoon, write the blog, eat my lunch and get to school for said Literacy class all in the next hour! So I’m hoping that these lovely photos (taken by people other than me!) will convey something of last night’s atmosphere.

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Come and join in!

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Lovely flowers from my lovely editor, Francesca

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Child’s blackboard purloined for self-advertisement

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The awkward bit where I have to speak instead of write.

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Signing

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More gorgeous flowers – these from my agent.

Ready to be bought!

Ready to be bought!

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It’s not accidental that the fizz matches the book cover!

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Beautiful congratulations flowers from my parents

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It’s happening here!

 

To Have and to Hold

To Have coverMy second novel, To Have and to Hold, is going to be published as an e-book in less than 2 weeks, on 8 May, and then in paperback on June 19. That’s both incredibly exciting – it feels as though having a second book in print might just give me membership of the elusive Proper Author club, but also rather scary because it means I’m about to embark upon the part of my job I like least – actually trying to persuade people to go out and buy the book!

Of course, that’s not entirely, or even primarily my responsibility (thank goodness). There’s a fantastic team of creative, talented and enthusiastic professionals at Hodder who do all the hard work, but I do have to do my share of sidling into local bookshops and murmuring inaudibly “Hi, my name’s Helen, I’ve umm, written an, erm, book, and it’s erm, well, coming out quite soon. Is there any chance, I mean I know there probably isn’t, and you’re busy and umm well, don’t worry about it…” at which point they probably look slightly bemused and point out that they don’t actually work there, and I go even redder in the face, and turn tail and run. Or something like that.

In all seriousness, I do find the publicity part incredibly shy-making, even though it’s integral to the whole process – after all, there’s not much point me writing if no-one ever reads what I’ve written. Many geniuses are never discovered in their own lifetime, but a) I am not anything remotely approaching a genius, and b) I have very little interest in post-humous success, but a strong desire for people to read and hopefully enjoy what I’ve written right now. And then, you know, tell me. Needy, me?

At one point it seemed as though getting published would be the pinnacle of success and achievement, but, as with many things in life, when you reach what you thought was the pinnacle it turns out to be a mere plateau, and you can see the summit still way, way out of reach above you. This time last year, in my naivety, I had no idea that even getting stocked in a big bookshop like Waterstones, or a supermarket, was so hard. But thinking about it, it makes sense. There are hundreds of books published each year in my genre alone, there is no physical way they could all get shelf space.

Of course, e-books have changed things slightly, but even these sales depend on people knowing about it in the first place. Which is where that much talked about ‘word of mouth’ comes in. So, here’s my plea – if you enjoyed Two for Joy, or like reading my blog, then please, pretty please, do tell people about it, tell them about To Have and to Hold coming out, post a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

And, just to whet your appetite for To Have and to Hold, here is the cover blurb created by my fabulous editor:

From the outside, Ella has the happy marriage, the cute kids and the comfortable home – inside, she craves something more. But giving in to temptation will stir up a whole heap of trouble . . .

Imogen’s relationship with Pete was once fun and carefree but since they’ve become parents, everything is different. Then an accident provides the catalyst for a life-changing decision.

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe is miserable at home and at school. And now her dad, who was always her ally, seems completely distracted by something – or someone. Maybe it’s time Phoebe took a stand, and took control of her own life.

As Ella, Imogen and Phoebe contemplate taking the biggest risk of their lives, marriages, families and friendships hang in the balance. Should they take the leap, or will they risk losing everything?